Gina Clayton, left, and Crystalee Crain prepare for an Essie Justice Group session for women with loved ones behind bars. Clayton is one of three recipients of 2014 seed grants from Harvard’s Public Service Venture Fund.

For Alec Karakatsanis and Phil Telfeyan winning cases means getting justice for clients unable to fight for themselves. Clients like the hundreds of people locked up in a Montgomery, Ala., jail because they were too poor to pay their traffic tickets.

Equal Justice Under Law, the organization founded by the two Harvard Law alums to provide pro bono legal services, filed a federal lawsuit in March arguing that Montgomery’s system of requiring people who couldn’t pay fines to sit out their debts behind bars at a rate of $50 a day was unconstitutional.

In May, a federal judge barred the city from jailing three Equal Justice clients on that ground, and Montgomery subsequently released dozens of inmates incarcerated for the same reason.

Without the seed grant that Karakatsanis and Telfeyan won from Harvard Law’s Public Service Venture Fund in 2013, some of those inmates might still be in jail. The two were the first to benefit from a program designed to help Harvard Law graduates found startups that target unmet legal needs at a time when other sources of funding were drastically reduced by a recession and years of slower economic growth. Continue reading