Student Posts

Reflections from a Courtroom

I had never walked into a courtroom before law school.  The only people I knew who had been in courtrooms entered as defendants.  For me, courtrooms had a very serious and almost terrifying power about them.  And yet this year, I have walked into a courtroom at least once a week.  To say the experience is surreal is a bit of an understatement.

The first time I walked into court as a student in the Prosecution Clinic, I was mildly terrified.  I was only observing that day, but I still felt some sort of fear of doing the wrong thing.  After all, serious – and life changing – business happens in a courtroom.  In my time at my clinic placement, I have been struck by the many different voices in a courtroom.  There’s the judge, the prosecutor, the defendant, the defendant’s attorney, the clerk, victims, witnesses, family and friends of the victim or defendant, and then other defendants waiting for their cases to be called. Obviously they don’t speak all at once, but you hear each of the different voices throughout the morning.  There’s a lot of listening too, especially if you’re not one of the attorneys in the room.  And there’s a lot that is communicated without words.

In the months since that first week at my clinic placement, I’ve found myself continuing to observe, but I observe much more than my supervisor now.  I think about the defendant and what she is thinking as she approaches the bench.  I wonder what the courtroom feels like to her, even if this isn’t her first time in court.  I wonder if she feels heard or seen.  I think about the defendants who sit watching the cases before theirs and I wonder similar things.  For defendants and victims alike, I wonder if they feel like they are watching a machine that seems to produce fairly predictable outcomes.

Underlying all of these thoughts is the question, “What do people think of my role and how do they perceive me?”  To be clear, the question doesn’t stem from some vain desire to be this amazing clinical student (though I do want to do my job well).  My concern is that for the majority of people who walk into that courtroom what happens inside those four walls can make or break their future.  Yes, I practice in general district court right now, but I have come to appreciate the significance of misdemeanor offenses for both victims and defendants.  The outcomes matter to everyone involved.

And so I wonder, how do I fit into victims or defendants perspectives of the criminal justice system?  I try to be human and treat everyone who walks in the doors the same way, but if I treat victims and defendants with equal courtesy, does that negate my treatment of the other?

The legal system is by design an adversarial system, but sometimes I wonder if we have reached the mistaken assumption that adversarial precludes compassion.  I’m starting my career as a prosecutor, and I have on countless occasions given some sort of disclaimer with that statement.  I’ve talked about how I’ll be the “good” prosecutor who cares about people and justice and brings a broader perspective.  I hate feeling like I have to justify my career choice, but I know that not all prosecutors share my mindset.  I wonder if further down the road I’ll still have to attach a caveat my career choice.  In the meantime, I’ll keep observing and listening to what’s said and unsaid in the courtroom.

Amber Strickland is a 3L from Centreville, Virginia.  After spending four years in the cornfields of Ohio for college, she moved to Bangalore, India where she worked with an anti-human trafficking organization.  In law school, Amber has spent her summers working on civil rights and racial justice issues.  After graduation, Amber will start her career as an Assistant District Attorney in Manhattan.

Student Posts

Convincing the Skeptics

As a law student who arrived at UVA knowing that I wanted to do public service immigration work, I have at times felt like I was swimming upstream. Most 1Ls either plan to work in the private sector or have not yet found their niche within the legal community. As someone who did not fit in either of those categories, I have realized the importance of being able to explain to family, friends, fellow students, and faculty that I have chosen my career path in public service immigration. By demonstrating my dedication to the field through words and actions, I have persuaded the skeptics in my life that my less-conventional path is the right one for me.

When people ask me why I want to do public service immigration, usually I start by explaining how I got into the field. During college, I interned at the Legal Aid Society of Rochester’s Immigration Program and discovered my passion for working with immigrants from around the world and helping solve their legal problems. I was amazed by the enormous impact their immigration status could have on other aspects of their lives.   Usually this explanation shows the skeptics that I care about immigrants, but it still leaves them wondering why I did not go the firm route.

I have never made the kind of money my peers will make at their firms, and I probably never will. But I have come home at the end of the day feeling fulfilled by my work. It is easier for me to picture myself happy because of the work I am doing than the salary I am making. The problem with this answer is that the skeptic asking the question often has an easier time conceptualizing the salary than the work fulfillment. Because of my work in the field and the actions of the immigration legal community in the last few months, even these skeptics in my life have come around.

After much second-guessing, I decided to not participate in OGI. The skeptics in my life had held out hope until that point that I would work at a firm. That would have been a clearer and more certain path. By taking a concrete step toward my goal of being a public service immigration lawyer, I convinced them that I was serious about my decision. I am confident that my choice to forgo OGI was the right one for me.

My 2L summer internship search happened later in the fall, and I accepted an internship the day after the election. When the Travel Ban Executive Order first came out, I was inspired by my professional community’s mobilization and heartened to witness the huge outpouring of popular support against the Order. Seeing stories of people whose lives had been impacted by the Order and the lawyers who showed up in their defense convinced the skeptics in my life of the importance of immigration lawyers and the validity of my career path.

My advice to people who are fairly certain of what they want to do but have skeptical family, friends, peers, or professors is the following: be persistent, find comfort in your work, and take deliberate steps in the direction of your goals. The rest will fall into place.

Aviva Schaffer is a 2L from Rochester, NY.  After studying International Relations and Arabic at the University of Rochester, she spent a year working in Washington, DC.  She has interned for the Immigration Program at the Legal Aid Society of Rochester and for the Arlington Immigration Court.  She plans to practice immigration law in the future.

Student Posts

The Public Service Imperative

Life is beautiful. It is easy to get wrapped up in our work and our goals and struggles and to forget what an absolute gift it is to be on this earth, to wake up each day, to experience the myriad joys, great and small, that each day holds. To move through our lives, to discover and build ourselves and to form connections with others, each on our own journeys. And on top of that what an incredible privilege it is to not have our daily lives be mediated by violence, disease, or poverty, creating barriers to our own joy and agency. But we know that too many others are suffering, and that is in part why we have chosen the path of service.

I think about this a lot while walking the halls of UVA Law, surrounded by the bright young future of the legal profession, busy diligently preparing for lives of professional success and, hopefully, personal satisfaction. I think about how we define success, and how it gets defined for us, in many cases before we’ve had a chance to figure out how we would define it for ourselves. I think about how and why we derive satisfaction from our work, and the values that play into that. And I can’t help but think about these questions in the context of what is happening in the world outside these halls, around the world and in our own embarrassingly wealthy yet poverty-stricken country. I think about what life means, and whether it means something different for us walking these halls than it does for the ones sleeping in the street. Does life have greater meaning for the person making a hundred eighty grand a year than for the person struggling to feed their children?

We are all connected. We are born out of the universe, we live, love, and die, and return from whence we came. We are one. One person’s suffering is all of our suffering. I firmly believe this is the truth. I want to shout this truth from the rooftops and in the halls of Congress. I want to share this truth with everyone I know and come in contact with. I especially want to share it with anyone who would ever consider devoting their working lives to amassing personal wealth. You can’t take it with you, I would say, lovingly but forcefully. Love is all there is, so let’s love one another and work together to make a world in which everyone can live in peace and love!

Material wealth means nothing, except in that it enables us to serve others. I’m not a Christian, but Jesus is about the most inspiring figure I can imagine—the literal embodiment of love, of service, of sacrifice. I was similarly inspired hearing Dr. Larycia Hawkins talk a month ago about embodying solidarity through our lives and daily actions. I was similarly inspired by a fellow attendee at RebLaw a few weeks ago who shared her personal theory of justice: to protect and serve the most vulnerable among us, and work outwards from there. Why? Because our joy withers in the face of our neighbor’s suffering. Because we refuse to be ignorant of their suffering. Because we could never be truly happy knowing that we had the power to make a difference and instead chose our own comfort.

Inherent in life is choice, perhaps the greatest gift of all. It is up to us to choose how we spend this life we’ve been given. And every choice we make is an active choice—having this freedom means we must take full responsibility for how we use it. This is true for all, but none more so than it is for us, the privileged future masters of the laws that govern our society. That we were given such freedom and power—that we enjoy such meaningful agency in our lives while others have none—should be enough to tell us what to do with it.

I am inspired every day by you all for making the choice to serve—to work so that others may live free. Thank you.

Ryan Snow is a 2L from Stanford, California. He graduated from Oberlin College and Conservatory of Music in 2005 with degrees in Politics and Jazz Studies, and moved to Brooklyn, NY, where he spent ten years working as a professional trombonist before becoming radicalized by the Roberts Court. He spent last summer working at the Campaign Legal Center, will spend this summer working at the DOJ Voting Section, and plans to spend his career working to make our political system more accessible and responsive to the people.


UVA Law Alumni Offer Help to Detained Travellers

UVA Law Alum Volunteer Assistance to Refugees

Over the weekend, UVA law alumni Aly Pont, Monica Haymond, Alison Friberg, Devon Yamauchi, Peter Kye, Rebecca Caruso, and Jennifer Talbert, all Class of 2016, went to the Dulles airport to offer their assistance to travelers detained by President Trump’s Executive Order.

Note: Federal law and internal agency ethics rules impose various limitations on the actions of federal employees.

Student Posts

Amicus Advocacy: An Alternative Path in Impact Lit

Many of us in the LPS community are interested in impact litigation – indeed, analyzing how to construct an impact lit campaign was a centerpiece of Professor Coughlin’s Law & Public Service class for fellows this past spring. While affirmative litigation remains the focus of organizations like the ACLU, NAACP LDF, and the Brennan Center, amicus brief writing has become an important part of the practice, particularly when seminal cases reach the Supreme Court. These briefs provide the Court with extra-legal arguments and important real-world data that may not have been raised in the trial record.

As part of my 1L winter break pro bono, I was able to work on an amicus brief for the Supreme Court case of Zubik v. Burwell. That case involved a religious non-profit’s challenge to the Affordable Care Act’s contraception mandate, which required that employers provide contraception coverage without cost sharing to their employees. The non-profits argued that this violated their First Amendment rights to free exercise of religion. The lawyers I was working for were writing on behalf of numerous church-state scholars who sided with the government, arguing that providing a religious accommodation impermissibly shifted burdens onto non-adherents, violating the Establishment Clause. (If this has really piqued your interest, you can read the brief here.) Much of the pro-government amicus effort was coordinated by the ACLU, ensuring that the dozens of amicus briefs filed were not duplicative for the court.

While Zubik involved a brokered settlement by the court, likely to avoid a 4-4 split, amicus briefs in a number of other cases have been cited approvingly by the court, providing important facts for the majority opinion. (See, for example, the recent abortion decision Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt, in which the majority cited to nearly half a dozen amicus briefs showing that the Texas regulation at issue imposed an undue burden on a woman’s access to abortion.)

I found the amicus process to be a great way to get involved with a litigation campaign in law school, even (especially!) as a 1L. A lot of the faculty, particularly in the civil rights/civil liberties domain, work on briefs regularly and can use research support. The topics are usually fairly narrow, since they seek to expand upon the issues that were either not addressed or were only cursorily mentioned in the parties’ briefs, so you can get up to speed on the subject matter fairly quickly. The process is relatively short, so I was able to see the whole brief from beginning to end in just a few months, whereas a full piece of litigation can take years. For future litigators with many different practice/topic interests, the amicus system is a great way to get exposure to a lot of cutting-edge issues in the law. I never expected to work on a reproductive rights filing in the Supreme Court in law school – especially after just one semester here – but I’m so thankful that I did! The experience has really colored my elective choices and gave me an invaluable look to what an impact litigation career (or an impact litigation facet of an academic career) would really look like.

img_2692George is a 2L from New Jersey. He graduated from Duke University in 2013 with a degree in Economics, and hopes to become a federal prosecutor after law school. This past summer he interned at the United States Attorney’s Office for the District of New Jersey, and he is a member of the UVA Innocence Project Clinic. In his free time, George likes to play tennis, root for Duke basketball, struggle through the New York Times crossword, and watch stand up comedy.

Student Posts

Why Environmental Law is Public Service Law

Public Service Law is not a field whose boundaries can be cleanly demarcated based on the subject matter addressed, the type of client represented, or the policy positions taken by its practitioners. This much is obvious to members of the public service legal community, which includes prosecutors and defenders, government agencies and nonprofits, client-focused work and impact litigation.

What baffles me is that, despite this diversity, environmental lawyers are often considered public service lawyers as something of an afterthought, if at all. Environmental advocacy is ineligible for many public service grant and fellowship programs, and environmental lawyers are selected by the programs for which they are eligible relatively rarely, compared to lawyers from many other fields. As the single 2L member of the Law and Public Service Program planning to practice environmental law, I even feel a little out of place in our own program at times.

I have noticed two main reasons why the public service community has ignored environmental concerns. The first is that environmentalism has the reputation of being a cause for people who are out of touch with real, urgent problems like oppression, injustice, and poverty. Anyone who thinks he has time to worry about polar bears when people are losing their rights, livelihoods, and lives must be blinded by his privilege at best, and willfully ignorant at worst. I think this is a not-unwarranted, but serious and dangerous mischaracterization of environmentalism. Don’t get me wrong, I like watching nature documentaries and hiking just as much as the next Chaco-wearing hippie, but that’s not why I’m studying environmental law. I consider myself an environmentalist not in spite of or instead of, but because of my commitment to helping combat the oppression, injustice, and suffering experienced by so many of my fellow humans.

What the public service community must realize is that social injustice and environmental injustice often stem from the same sources, have the same consequences, and share the same solutions. The same greed and shortsightedness that wrecked the world’s economy in 2008 is on track to wreck the world’s climate in the coming decades. The consumerist impulse to seek, accumulate, and exploit ever more is just as damaging to the planet as it is to those who struggle to pay their bills and meet their basic needs while the one percent continue amassing wealth. Failing to consider the impact that our lifestyles have on our limited resources is like failing to consider the harm that our words and actions can cause, or the forms of privilege we enjoy, or the oppressive forces present in our culture. Tragedies like Flint, Michigan (which are far too common) highlight the connections between environmental, racial, and economic injustice, and these connections run much deeper than environmentalists or social activists typically acknowledge.

The second reason public service ignores environmentalism is that environmental harms seem attenuated, diffuse, probabilistic, and difficult to quantify or compare to other priorities. The result is that public interest lawyers focus all their efforts on addressing injustices that seem more urgent and directly felt. This problem is compounded by the frequently protracted nature of environmental litigation.

I understand that making environmental concerns a priority involves difficult choices and tradeoffs. My hope is simply that the public service community can come to see the costs on all sides of these tradeoffs with clear eyes. These include not just monetary costs, but ecological and human costs as well. There is no one right way of measuring and prioritizing these costs, but we must acknowledge them and begin to grapple with them.

To my mind, the most accurate and useful way to define public service law is in terms of the community of public service lawyers. We are fortunate to have a thriving public service community here at UVA Law, one small part of which is represented by the Law and Public Service Program. This community would be far stronger and better equipped to serve the public interest if it made environmentalism one of its core features. Of course, the reverse is also true. Environmental lawyers have a lot to learn from the broader public service community, and especially from groups that are in better touch with those experiencing oppression, poverty, and injustice, because this is exactly who environmentalists should strive to serve.

dennison-headshotJim is a 2L from Logan, Utah. He graduated from the University of North Carolina in 2013 with a degree in philosophy. He has done pro bono with Western Resource Advocates in Salt Lake City, Utah and spent the summer of 2016 working for the Southern Environmental Law Center in Birmingham, Alabama. Next summer, he will work for Environmental Defense Fund in Boulder, Colorado. In his spare time, he likes to climb rocks, ride his bike, and cook veggies on the grill.

Student Posts

My Public Service Identity (Crisis?)

If you’re reading this “Law and Public Service” blog, I imagine you came to law school, or are currently considering law school, because you believe the law will equip you with a powerful tool for social change. While that wasn’t the only reason I came to law school, it was certainly the driving force. I spent four years after college weaving my way through various public service jobs in an effort to figure out how I could use my particular skills and interests to “best” contribute to the world. While I wasn’t always sure where I would end up, and I often felt driven but directionless, I could at least identify strongly as a public interest-minded person. That was the link that tied my professional pursuits together, and that was the chain that led me to law school.

A little over two years later, now in my final year of law school, I question whether I can still claim that identify. When I graduate, I will be working at a large law firm—the type of place where, during a ten-week summer stint, I earned what I used to earn in a year. The type of place where I generally won’t be fighting for the underdog, or what we think of as social justice. The type of place where I’ll often be representing companies whose values I disagree with. The type of place where money, rather than fairness, may take priority. And you know what? I’m looking forward to it. I even liked working at the firm this summer. A lot.

I liked the complexity of the cases I worked on. I liked the attorneys I worked with. I liked the wining and dining. I liked being able to afford a nice gym and expensing my Uber rides. I liked the vast pro bono opportunities. I liked not worrying about money for the first time in my life. And I liked having seemingly infinite resources to help me produce the best result for our clients.

But what does this mean for my identity? Am I still a “good” person? Will I stick with my plan of transitioning back into public service after a few years of hard work and long hours at the firm? Or will I wake up one day wondering how I got so far off track? Even more frightening, will I become perfectly content with the corporate high life and settle into its golden handcuffs?

My answer is this: I’m still the same person I was two years ago. I still want to devote my career to public service. I still believe that the law provides leverage for social justice. I am still conscious of and infuriated by the injustices I see every day. I still recognize my privilege and am driven to use it in a way that hopefully benefits others. That said, I also still have a lot to learn. So I’m taking a job that will not only help me pay down my loans, but that will prepare me for the complex civil rights litigation I want to do in the long-run. A job that I will give my all to, but that will not define me. Our work does not have to define any of us. What defines me is my perspective and values—both of which will infuse my work and interactions with the world around me.

This of course is not the only path or by any means the selfless path, but it’s the path that is right for me right now. Regardless of my job title, I am confident that I will stay me, that I will continue to question whether my actions reflect my values, and that my commitment to public service will lead me in the right direction.

head-shot-2Claire is a 3L who grew up in South Pasadena, California. She majored in International Development Studies at UC Berkeley and then went on to work for four years in various non-profit and community organizing positions. She dabbled as a union organizer, a reproductive health educator in South America, a paralegal at an immigration law firm specializing in asylum and deportation defense, and a research assistant at the International Budget Partnership in Washington, D.C. She loves being back in school, and like Goldilocks, thinks law school is just right (for her). She especially loves using law school’s long winter and summer breaks for traveling!

Interests: Civil Rights Litigation; Impact Litigation; Government; Criminal Law; Public Policy.