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.

Student Posts

The World’s Largest Democracy

This past summer I had the privilege of working for the South Asian Human Rights Documentation Centre (SAHRDC) in New Delhi, India. Having previously studied abroad in India during my undergraduate career I had a strong desire to return to the world’s largest democracy with some legal knowledge under my belt. After receiving an offer to work with Ravi Nair, the Director of SAHRDC, and speaking with several past interns who thoroughly enjoyed their time under Ravi’s mentorship I applied for a work visa and upon receiving it bought a plane ticket. Overall the experience was remarkable. I learned so much working with Ravi and I was humbled to assist him in fighting for human rights, a fight Ravi has participated in since the 1960s.

Going into the summer I felt like I had a pretty solid handle of ongoing human rights concerns in India, but that could not have been further from the truth. My prior knowledge was focused on concerns regarding women’s rights, lingering elements of the caste system, and poverty, but I had never heard of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), anti-conversion laws, the insurmountable judicial delay plaguing the court system of India, the impunity government officials are granted under Indian law, the excessive use of force displayed daily in Kashmir and Northeast India, or Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s association with the 2002 anti-Muslim riots in Gujarat, which occurred under his watch as chief minister. I learned about all of these issues as I prepared reports to submit to the United Nations in preparation for India’s third Universal Periodic Review with the United Nations Human Rights Council. In addition to an official report submitted by the state itself, NGOs are also permitted to submit reports on a country’s human rights record to increase transparency.

By writing several of these reports in addition to various articles, I learned that although India is the largest democracy in the world, on the ground the country is anything but free or fair. Ravi had known this for a long time, and although he realizes he can only live to see so much change in his country he has dedicated his life and his personal inheritance to fighting for every bit of change he can achieve. Previously, Ravi received funding from foreign investors to support SAHRDC, but to receive this type of funding an NGO in India needs a license: a license that is issued by the government. Thanks to Ravi’s great work, the Indian government has rewarded him by taking away this license, which has left Ravi to use what he has left of his mother’s inheritance to run the organization. SAHRDC used to be housed in an office building, and Ravi used to have 10-15 employees. Today the SAHRDC is located in what is essentially two storage units and consists of Ravi, an assistant, and the interns who funnel in and out every couple of months. Ravi is one of the few brave individuals fighting for systemic change in the largest democracy in the world and I could not have been more honored to help him in this fight.

nicolelawlerheadshotNicole Lawler is a member of the Class of 2018 from Orefield, Pennsylvania. She graduated from King’s College, Wilkes-Barre, PA, in 2015 with a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology, Political Science, Theology, and Economics. This past summer Nicole worked at the South Asia Human Rights Documentation Centre in New Delhi, India. Previously, Nicole has interned at the Defenders Association of Philadelphia and the Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project in Philadelphia. Nicole enjoys playing softball and traveling in her spare time.

Conversations with Practitioners

Vivian Kim

Conversations with Practitioners is our ongoing series in which we ask current practitioners about their careers.

1. What do you currently do?

I am an Assistant United States Attorney at the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the District of Columbia. Our office is a little different from other U.S. Attorney’s offices. Since there is no D.A. in the District, the office also handles local crime. I specifically handle domestic violence misdemeanors in D.C. Superior Court.

2. What does your job entail?

I’m more like a local prosecutor than a federal prosecutor. I am in the courtroom almost every day in the mornings, handling status hearings, detention hearings, motions hearings, arraignments, sentencings, and trials etc. If there is a trial, I will be there all day. If not, in the afternoons I spent a lot of time talking to witnesses and victims. Because of the work I do, I encounter a lot of people who are in vulnerable and tragic moments in their lives; it is crucial that I take the time and care to speak with respect and clarity during this time. I also spend the afternoons gathering evidence, investigating, turning evidence over to defense counsel, getting ready for upcoming trials, and negotiating plea deals with defense counsel.

My job involves a lot of jugging talking to different people: the court, defense counsel, witnesses, and law enforcement officers.

3. What drew you to doing this kind of work?

I have been focused on this kind of work for a while. Straight out of college, I worked as a paralegal at the Manhattan D.A.’s office in the sex crimes unit. In law school, I was in the Prosecution Clinic where I handled domestic relations misdemeanors in Albemarle County.

A big part of being a prosecutor is connecting with people in difficult, tragic moments in their lives. This includes victims, victims’ families, and even the defendant. There is something about the deep personal level of domestic violence cases that draw me to them. As a prosecutor, I want to bring about the best resolution to a case and for all those involved: whether that is by dismissing a case, getting the defendant help, or incarceration, if the case warrants that. The discretion you have as a prosecutor is incredibly intimidating – there is a lot of responsibility there that you have to take seriously – but you have the freedom to know that this is where you can use your intellect, training, and heart to hopefully find a way to resolve what is happening.

4. What did you do in law school or immediately after law school that has helped you develop your career?

During law school, I was part of the first class in the Law and Public Service Program which played a great part in developing my passion for public service. The classes, especially the practical skills classes were great. I also appreciated the community of other like-minded students in the program who were committed to public service.

I also participated in the Prosecution Clinic. If someone wants to be a prosecutor, they should absolutely do it. It is an amazing clinic and you will get experience working one-on-one with great attorneys will take the time to train and mentor you. And it was my first opportunity to experience being a trial attorney, in the courtroom, advocating for victims as a lawyer.

After law school, I went to a firm for three years. If you go to a firm with the idea that you one day want to go into public service, be very intentional, which can be hard to do. I sought out white collar work, criminal investigations, opportunities to go to court, pro bono, and deposition experience to round out my trial skills and criminal law knowledge. It’s crucial to go to the firm with an eye to grow and learn – seek out mentors and assignments that will challenge you and help you become a better attorney all-around.

5. Do you have any advice for current law students who are interested in working in your industry (or law students in general)?

You should take as many practical skills classes as you can. I took Practical Trial Evidence with Judge Crigler, which I still use every day in court. I regret not taking any of the public speaking classes with Professors Saylor and Shadel. You want to practice oral advocacy in front of your peers, so when you’re in court you can walk in with more confidence and gumption. I also recommend taking courses that teach you how to tap into your heart in conjunction with your brain. It’s easy in law school to feel that you have to take all the legal theory courses – the “meat and potatoes” bar exam courses. That’s certainly true, and it’s good advice. But personally, I found the most rewarding courses were the ones where I was encouraged to consider human perspectives foreign to my own life experience and to tap into my empathy and compassion as well as my intellect and legal skills to truly advocate – courses like the Human Rights Clinic, Poverty and the Law, and the Prosecution Clinic.

Vivian KimVivian Kim is an AUSA in the U.S. Attorney’s Office of the District of Columbia. Prior to that, she worked at Morgan, Lewis and Bockius in New York. Vivian graduated from the University of Virginia School of Law in 2012. She did her undergraduate degree at Princeton University.

Student Posts

A Common Bond

Most often what attracts us to different things – people, places, jobs – is a common bond. For me, I definitely share a common bond with the work that I want to do as an attorney. As the daughter of a biracial couple, I found myself naturally drawn to civil rights work. After all, it was civil rights litigation that allowed people like me to enjoy the freedoms that we now do. I find myself drawn to careers of fighting for the under-championed cause – not because I enjoy the fight but because I know the fight is worth it.

This common bond or shared interest definitely fuels my fire. I want to work through the hard parts or long hours because my identity is tied to those I want to help. And yet, there is a cost to that common bond. You’re not only dealing with your own issues – you’re also taking on the issues of others.

My two summer jobs during law school have both dealt with racial justice and civil rights. Both summers also had their fair share of tragedy for the Black community. It is an incredible privilege to have participated in civil rights work, and yet, it was flat out exhausting at times. Work wasn’t just about thinking about reforms and the best ways to do justice. In the background was the hurt of wondering how members of my family might be treated one day and the feeling of security slipping away.

So why do it? Why work in an area that is so closely tied to who I am? It’s not just about having the extra passion to get through the day. I could probably find another motivation to do my job. For me, it comes down to a combination of stubbornness and impatience. If I am unhappy with parts of the world we live in, I’m not going to wait for the change. I’m going to find a way to make the dream a reality.

And with perhaps foolish naïveté, I march on. The hard days aren’t any easier, and the hard days will come. But realizing why I want to do this work gives me the freedom to actually do the work. Part of the work is recognizing that I do share a common bond with the issues. Sometimes that means taking a little extra time to sit with things and to actively carve out space to process what’s happening around me. Sure, that adds another step to the process, but it’s worth it.

If there’s something that lights your fire – some common bond – don’t be afraid to make that your career. We need more people at the table who can shed light on reality. When you chase those passions, remember that work won’t just be a job. It’ll be a part of you, so make the time to take care of yourself. Let’s make change happen, and not wait for it to unfold.


Amber Strickland is a 3L from Centreville, Virginia. After spending her undergraduate years enjoying small town America in the cornfields of Ohio, she joined the fight to end bonded labor in India while interning with International Justice Mission. When not reading for class, she can be found procrasti-baking or cooking.