Pro Bono, Student Posts

A Week at Public Defender Service in DC

I came into law school completely certain that I was going to be a public service lawyer. I had absolutely zero exposure or experience to public service lawyering, however. Though I had a large collection of community service hours, mostly centered around working with kids in impoverished, inner city communities (my motivation for attending law school), I had never met a public service lawyer before coming to law school, never stepped foot in a public service legal office, and really had no idea what public service lawyering looked like. The only legal experience I had was my summer job at a small intellectual property firm five minutes from my house. It gave me some great legal experience but had almost nothing to do with the kind of legal work I wanted to do.

So when I first learned of the opportunity to do pro bono work over spring break of my first year in law school, I could not have signed up quickly enough. The Public Interest Law Association at UVA plans more than a dozen week-long spring break pro bono opportunities at public service organizations across the country ranging from environmental work in Kentucky to child advocacy in North Carolina.

I had spent every spring break in undergrad on service trips and always considered them to be the best week of the year. Not only would an alternative spring break trip with the law school allow me to continue that tradition, but it would also give me experience in a real public service legal office. My excitement only increased once learning of the opportunity to work at Public Defender Service (PDS) in Washington, D.C. Our 1L Law and Public Service class had read about PDS as being the “best place on earth” in our assigned readings and even heard from one of their appeals lawyers, so PDS was definitely my top choice for spring break. Thankfully, I was approved to go on that trip and gain some real public service lawyering experience.

And that I did. The very first thing (besides paperwork) I did upon arriving at the office was run across the street to hear a PDS lawyer’s closing remarks at trial. No one seemed to know what the case was about but I quickly learned when one of the first words I heard uttered in the courtroom was “murder.” I’m a bit of a crime show junkie so I had seen plenty of murder trials on TV but never in real life.

I know I will never forget this first murder trial I ever witnessed. I was impressed by the lawyers’ persuasive closing argument, curious about the jury members, frustrated by the harsh judge, interested in the people who came to watch and their connection to the defendant or decedent, and deeply impacted by the story and young age of the suspect and the life-condemning sentence he could be given. It was so clear: this was real.

After walking away from that experience though, there weren’t any more exciting murder trials in the agenda for my week. Instead, I received a ton of legal research and writing assignments. To be honest, I was initially disappointed with the tasks assigned to me. I was hoping for investigative work or client interaction, which to me was the fun stuff, not legal research and writing, the two things that I thought I succeeded in escaping from for the week. Thankfully, though, it did not take long for me to realize that this legal research was real and significant. I was not just researching a legal issue in regards to a fictional, aspiring teenage DJ, like in my Legal Research and Writing class, I was researching a real issue that has a real effect on a real client. My work and its quality could make a difference in a person’s life. That is the reason why I am in law school and why I volunteered for the week: to try to make a positive impact in a person’s life. That reminder was what I needed to gain motivation and enthusiasm throughout the week; the work I was doing was real and had a real impact.

I am so grateful for the opportunity I had to volunteer at PDS over spring break. I got to meet and work alongside amazing and inspiring lawyers who help change people’s lives. I was exposed to the real workings of the criminal justice system. And I finally got experience with public service lawyering and with it, a dose of motivation knowing the impact of public service lawyering.

Read more about other students’ Alternative Spring Break experiences here

Erin Seagears is a first year law student from Gainesville, Virginia. She graduated from the University of Virginia with a major in Political and Social Thought, and a minor in Religious Studies. She will be spending her summer in Charlottesville working for the JustChildren program of Legal Aid Justice Center and wants to devote her law career to serving vulnerable children and youth in inner city communities.


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