This summer, I had the tremendous privilege of clerking at the Marin County Public Defender’s Office in San Rafael, California. It was an honor to work with such passionate, talented attorneys, and the experiences I had solidified my desire to pursue a career as a public defender after graduation.
I am passionate about advocating for individuals who are underrepresented and marginalized. Too often, the folks who face criminal charges and qualify for the services of the public defender have had some pretty tough life experiences. Society is quick to categorize people based on class, race, and criminal record. To be an effective criminal defense attorney and advocate, you must recognize the humanity in every client, regardless of their alleged offense. Every day, I had the privilege of working closely with clients and hearing so many different stories and perspectives. It’s no secret that clients are not always easy to work with, but negative attitudes and anger are understandable considering the circumstances. In addition to the stress of interacting with law enforcement, anxiety and fear about being in jail, and uncertainty about the future, most of our clients suffer from chemical dependency and/or mental health issues. Confinement in a small cell while withdrawing from all substances used to self-medicate would reasonably put anyone in a foul temper. But regardless of my clients’ moods, I had an obligation to connect with them and advocate for them to the best of my ability. And that was the best part of my summer. I loved making those human connections, learning about my clients, and then zealously representing them in court.
While drafting an important motion, I worked closely with a client who quickly became my favorite of the summer. In the beginning, he was cold, distant, and hostile, and rightfully so; I later learned that he had never been able to trust many people. But I needed him to trust and talk to me so that I could persuasively weave his personal narrative into my argument. Little by little, he started opening up. I think he appreciated my consistency—the fact that I kept showing up when I said I was going to— and the fact that I genuinely listened to him. During our last conversation, we discussed religion, philosophy, African American history, and his dreams for the future. I know that when I am an attorney, conversations like this may be luxury. But I am grateful to the Marin County Public Defender for allowing me this experience, and so many others, that fuel my passion for this work. And with these experiences in mind, it is my personal and professional pledge to always take whatever time I have to truly listen to my clients’ stories.
I would like to publicly and sincerely thank everyone at the Marin County Public Defender, the University of Minnesota Human Rights Center, and the generous donors who funded my fellowship. Together, you gave me the opportunity to explore a field that I intend to make my life’s work. As I pursue this dream, I will always remember you with tremendous gratitude and appreciation.
The views expressed in this article represent those of the author and not necessarily those of the University of Minnesota Human Rights Center. As a forum for dialogue and education, and an acknowledgment of the contentious nature of human rights issues, some views expressed on this blog may not necessarily be those of the Human Rights Center as an institution.