Laila Rizk ‘21 Helps Low-Income New Yorkers Get a Fresh Financial Start

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Even as shelter in place orders lift and businesses re-open, New York City is reeling from the impact of COVID-19. Along with illness and death, the virus has brought widespread job loss and financial insecurity. This economic crisis—which some experts say is second only to the Great Depression—is taking an outsized toll on New Yorkers who were already marginalized and struggling before the pandemic hit.

Laila Rizk understands how financial distress can upend people’s lives. For the better part of the past year, she has worked as a legal intern for the NYC Bankruptcy Assistance Project (NYC BAP) at Legal Services NYC, the largest U.S. organization devoted exclusively to providing free civil legal services to low-income people.

At NYC BAP, Rizk and her colleagues prepare and file Chapter 7 bankruptcy petitions. Their clients then represent themselves as their non-protected assets are liquidated and distributed to creditors. Rizk and her fellow NYC BAP advocates also represent debtors in select Chapter 13 bankruptcy cases, which involve court-approved debt repayment plans.

“I started at NYC BAP in Fall 2019 as a student in the Law School’s year-long Bankruptcy Advocacy Clinic,” says Rizk. “I’m now continuing my work there, remotely, as a St. John’s Law Summer Public Interest Fellow. My clients have suffered from illness, accidents, work discrimination, disability, and death of caretakers. COVID-19 has only made their needs greater, with skyrocketing unemployment, major food insecurity, and lack of access to technology, among other obstacles. I feel empathy and deep compassion for them—so much so that it keeps me up at night. That’s what motivates me to produce my best work product and to be a zealous advocate for my clients.”

No one should have to experience the struggle and hardship that my clients experience every day. Bankruptcy is a tool to give them a fresh financial start. And with that fresh start, positive change is possible.”

Rizk also draws her empathy and compassion from her own life experience. “I’m one of five children and my father is an Egyptian immigrant,” she shares. “I spent my life watching my parents work tirelessly to make ends meet and give us the best life they could. I see these same qualities in my clients: hard working, caring, dedicated, and honest. No one should have to experience the struggle and hardship that my clients experience every day. Bankruptcy is a tool to give them a fresh financial start. And with that fresh start, positive change is possible.”

As she devotes herself to being an agent of that positive change, Rizk is grateful for the financial support she receives from St. John’s Law. “Like many of my peers, COVID-19 affected my family and me. In addition to my clinical work, I worked part-time jobs that I lost when the economy shut down. It was hard to lose those sources of income. But, as I aim to do for my NYC BAP clients, the Summer Public Interest Fellowship has lifted enough of the financial burden off my shoulders that I can keep doing the work I’m passionate about.”

Funding for Summer Public Interest Fellowships comes primarily from the Law School’s annual Public Interest Auction, which is run by the Public Interest Center and its affiliated Public Interest Law Student Association.