Injustice inspires law student to consider a career in public interest law

Penn State Law student Aiyao Zhou spent her summer at the National Clearinghouse for the Defense of Battered Women in Philadelphia, helping victims of domestic violence. “This is meaningful and rewarding work and there is so much injustice in the world,” she said. “Some of the women are facing the death penalty.”

Zhou wrote research memos on legal issues, for instance, the relationship between “stand your ground” laws and post-traumatic stress syndrome. She has also helped collect data on victims of domestic violence who have been convicted of a crime in an effort to determine how many of those victims had expert witnesses to testify on their behalf. 

She interviewed for this position when she attended the Public Interest Law Fair in Philadelphia. She was pleased to be selected later in the year for a fellowship by the Public Interest Law Fund and Degenstein Foundation. 

Her trip to the Public Interest Law Fair was inspired by a new awareness of injustice. A family friend was arrested and imprisoned under suspicious circumstances. Zhou corresponded with the man every day for weeks. “It affected me a lot. So many people around the world have been unfairly tried, sentenced and convicted.” She decided to spend some time in public interest law to help average people with their legal problems. 

Zhou, who is trilingual, has far more training than an average U.S. law student. A graduate of Beijing Foreign Studies University, she is already licensed to practice law in the People’s Republic of China. The PRC national bar exam has a pass rate of 8 percent. Zhou thought that her legal studies at Penn State would help train her for a career in the corporate world. “Before this, all of my internships and jobs were in corporate law,” she said. 

Her favorite professors include Larry Cata Backer, who specializes in international corporate law; Julia Lee, a scholar of financial regulation and commercial law; and William Fox, who practiced law for more than 30 years in addition to his teaching career. “I have taken professor Fox for three consecutive semesters for International Business Transactions, Contracts and Criminal Law.”

It is her training in Criminal Procedure that has been most helpful to her over the summer. “We had a training week when I started focused on criminal procedure. It was very easy for me to learn because I already learned this from my professors at Penn State.”

Zhou is looking forward to what the future will hold. She has another year of law school to make a decision about whether to stay in corporate law or switch to a public interest career or, perhaps, to pursue a corporate law career with pro bono work on the side.

More on law students' summer work 

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Last Updated July 22, 2015