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Family's generosity helps public defender 'afford to do my job'

Nathanael Miller

Nathanael Miller, J.D. '13. See larger image

On a typical day as a public defender in Louisville, Kentucky, Nathanael Miller, J.D. '13, arrives in court at 8:30 or 9 a.m.

"In my morning and afternoon I will represent, say, eight to 14 people charged with anything from not having insurance to various crimes that can carry life sentences," Miller says. He works for the Louisville-Jefferson County Public Defender Corp., a nonprofit that contracts with city and state agencies in Kentucky.

In recent cases, he's helped clients get out of custody, lightened sentences by working out drug treatments and appealed to judges when prosecutors are out of line. He says nothing could have prepared him emotionally for what happens day by day in the courtroom, but intellectually and professionally, Cornell Law School gave him an excellent education.

"The criminal defense professors at Cornell are extremely good," Miller says. In particular, professors John Blum, Sheri Lynn Johnson and Keir Weyble, who work with the Death Penalty Clinic, prepared him to advocate for clients who might be facing the worst situations of their lives.

"Every week produces something that is either heartbreaking or absurd or some combination of the two," he says. "It's nonstop."

Miller plans to continue doing this difficult but rewarding work for a long time; however, he could not have begun without financial assistance from the Alfred, Nicolle and Frederique Rossum Fund, an endowment established by the late Alfred Michael Rossum, J.D. '53. The fund was created to help Cornell Law graduates who are practicing law for nonprofit entities or public-sector employers while paying student loans – a daunting challenge.

Professor Sheri Lynn Johnson with students from the Death Penalty Clinic

Professor Sheri Lynn Johnson, in light blue blazer, shown here with students from the Death Penalty Clinic. See larger image

"There's a big discrepancy between private-sector salaries for Cornell grads and public sector," says Karen Comstock, assistant dean for public service at Cornell Law School. In 2014, 21 out of 184 Law School graduates went into public service, with low salaries and high student loan debt.

Miller graduated with close to $125,000 in debt. Annual payments on a 10-year plan would have equaled his take-home salary as a public defender.

"It is no exaggeration for me to say that without the Rossum Fund I could not afford to do my job," Miller wrote in an April 2015 letter to Pierre Descheemaeker, J.D. '73, a Cornell Law alumnus who helped facilitate Rossum's gift – and the only person left for Miller to thank.

Alfred Rossum had a varied career in the U.S., Japan, Great Britain and France. He lost his French wife, Nicolle Ray Rossum, and their daughter, Frederique, a family medicine doctor who died of leukemia. He planned his estate to benefit a Cornell Law graduate dedicated to public-interest law in their memory.

Descheemaeker, a senior partner with August & Debouzy Avocats, a top firm in Paris, used his expertise in French law to avoid a tax that would have taken 60 percent away from the total gift, severely diminishing support for the student.

"Pierre actually never met Alfred, but felt very honored to work on this gift posthumously, realizing the significant impact of this fund on someone's future," says Catheryn Obern, a member of Cornell's development staff.

Cornell Law School is further addressing the problem of high student debt preventing graduates from entering low-paying areas of law. Comstock is leading efforts to synchronize private gifts to the school via a 2007 federal law, the College Cost Reduction and Access Act, which has a public-service loan forgiveness provision.

The Law School's goal is to make it so that "if you have federal loans and you go into public-interest law," says Comstock, "law school could be free."

"We're seeking permanent, secure funding for this program," she says. A gift of $5 million to $6 million would endow the program. Until that happens, six individually named loan forgiveness funds, including the Rossum Fund, are supporting six Law School graduates, including Miller. Other sources support about 20 more.

Miller plans to continue working as a public defender until his loans are forgiven in 2023 and possibly beyond. He encourages current and future law students to find a way to go into public-interest law if that is their goal: "We need all the people we can get – all the good, passionate, committed attorneys. It's not an easy job."

– Kate Klein

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