Law student focusing on public interest sector

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By Sheila Pursglove
Legal News

After earning his undergrad degree in political science at the University of Michigan-Flint, Ben VanBarr worked for a couple of nonprofits that aligned with his focus on public interest work.

“Although the work was very rewarding, I came to feel I wasn’t contributing at my highest potential and that I could make a more significant impact as a lawyer,” he says.

So he headed to Wayne State University Law School, where he is now in his 2L year, and has been involved in the ACLU Student Chapter and Keith Students for Civil Rights.

“Wayne Law has been a great environment for me—the campus environment is very community-minded – both in terms of the community of our school and the community of Detroit,” he says. “It’s great to be in a place where so many people have the same kind of public interest background.

“I also feel I’ve been treated with sincere respect by the faculty and administration. They appreciate my professional experience and have allowed and supported my efforts to apply my background, not least by supporting the human trafficking conference.”

VanBarr was a lead organizer for the law school’s “(S)exploiting the Vulnerable” conference, held earlier this year. Until April, he was also employed at a local nonprofit, Alternatives For Girls, and a member of the Joint Anti-Trafficking Taskforce, and was directly involved with many of the most active organizations doing anti-trafficking work in Southeast Michigan.

“My experiences and connections there allowed me to contribute significantly to organizing the conference,” he says. “Professor Blanche Cook, who initiated the conference, has left Wayne Law, but the Dean’s Office has given me permission to lead the conference this year and try to establish it as a recurring event in the Detroit legal community.”

While VanBarr’s primary background and passion was combatting human trafficking and advocating for trafficking victims, and this is still the topic he is most involved with, he is taking advantage of the opportunity to explore other interests.

“I know the general direction I want to go,” he says. “It’s important to me that I feel like I’m playing for the ‘good guy.’ I can most easily see myself as a prosecutor or investigator in certain areas, a public interest or civil rights litigator, or working to improve policies and infrastructures that create barriers for people.”

This semester, VanBarr is completing an externship with U.S. District Court Judge Bernard Friedman, Eastern District of Michigan.

“I really value experiential education and plan to participate in as much of it as I can,” he says.

For future semesters, he is exploring opportunities at Wayne Law’s Asylum and Immigration Law Clinic, the U.S. Attorney’s Office, the state Attorney General’s Office, and the ACLU of Michigan.

VanBarr spent this past summer as a Levin intern with the Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations in Washington, D.C., with work primarily involving investigations into government agency actions. He contributed to drafting hearing memos and questions lines for members to refer to during hearings.

“Most of my work involved researching the actions we were investigating, background information on the topics involved, and witnesses testifying before the committee,” he says. “I really enjoyed having a first-hand view of the politics we see on TV – real life is somehow both better and worse than what the news portrays. I was surprised and grateful to have such a friendly and supportive team to work with—I’d expected a more high-pressure, cutthroat environment.”

In addition to committee members Diana DeGette and Joe Kennedy, VanBarr met three out of four members of “The Squad”—Rashida Tlaib, Ilhan Omar, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez—and U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders.

Outside of work, he enjoyed playing softball with co-workers and trying various coffee shops around the city.

“And I found an art venue in D.C. called Artechouse which was amazing! It’s immersive, 3-D, digital art – like nothing I’ve ever seen before,” he says. “The best way I can describe it is to compare it to wearing VR goggles that show moving art all around you, except there were no VR goggles involved.”

Another summer highlight was his August marriage in the mountains of Kentucky; his wife works at Wayne Law and is a 1L in the part-time program. A native of Burton near Flint, VanBarr now lives in Midtown Detroit.

“I couldn’t live any closer to the Law School unless I slept in the library,” he says with a smile. “My wife and I moved here before either of us were connected to the Law School because we liked the area, but it has certainly turned out to be convenient!”

VanBarr’s hobbies are active, to say the least.

“Some people might call me an adrenaline junkie—I love Krav Maga, motorcycles, rock climbing, skydiving,” he says. “Community service has also been a big part of my life.”

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