A woman in a pink blazer poses for the camera.
December 11, 2023

ASU Law appoints first director of public interest

A new position at the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law is helping students on their way to careers in public service.  

Vanessa Pineda has joined ASU Law as its first director of public interest as part of the law school’s continued emphasis on jobs aimed at advancing justice. 

Before joining ASU Law, Pineda dedicated over ten years of her legal career to working in the public interest sector. She held positions at Arizona nonprofits ranging from Instituto, the ACLU of Arizona, the Young Center for Immigrant Children’s Rights, and the Florence Immigrant and Refugee Rights Project. She started her career as an immigration attorney in Chicago after graduating with her Juris Doctor and a certificate in public interest law from the DePaul University College of Law in 2011.

“I went to law school with public interest work in mind,” she said. “My parents are immigrants from El Salvador and Mexico. I grew up with a close family member with schizophrenia and, as a child, had to maneuver the criminal legal system as an interpreter. I interpreted conversations between social workers, police officers and doctors but never fully understood these complex situations. I decided to go to law school to understand the criminal legal system and advocate for my community.”

Pineda grew up in west Phoenix (Maryvale) and attended ASU, earning dual bachelor’s degrees in history and political science before heading off to law school. While working in academia may be new to her, she’s used to advising and counseling young people on big life decisions as an attorney. She previously worked with unaccompanied children who had to make difficult decisions about whether they would remain in the U.S. without family or were required to return to their country of origin because they had no options for legal relief. She intends to use the same skills in her new role in Career Services as a “thought partner” for students. 

“I’m here as a resource and partner,” she said. “Listening to and learning from students is key to helping get them where they want to be. The more students that are in public interest careers, the more resources become available to communities in need.”

In her first few months in the role, Pineda hopes to get to know students on a personal level and continue building a network with government and public interest employers. Eventually, she’d like to add more programming, such as a spring break immersion program, and develop additional opportunities to celebrate students, alumni, attorneys and judges in public interest work. 

The main takeaway Pineda would like students to know as they start or finish their law school journeys is that not everyone knows exactly what they want to do after graduation – and that’s more than alright. 

“It’s okay not to know. It’s okay to be unsure,” she said. “That’s what law school is for. Try things out; don’t be afraid to fail. Even for those students who are completely sure of their career plans, be open to the unexpected opportunities that will show up throughout your legal career. You never know what doors will open for you after law school.”

Written by Lindsay Walker