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.