When Melanie Morales started at Rutgers Law School three years ago, she knew she wanted to become a public defender.
“This place has a reputation for being a school where social justice advocates and lawyers come out,” she said. “That appealed to me.”
She joined the Criminal and Youth Justice Clinic where she met with youth clients in juvenile detention centers, prepared clients to go to trial and even visited the places where her clients were arrested. Her Spanish-speaking skills also came in handy. She worked on sentence reduction appeals, immigration cases, and gained in-court experience by appearing in the Essex County Special Remand Court.
“This clinic helped me get experience while still at school. It helped me learn about the struggles, what communities under go in Essex County. I enjoyed it very much,” she said. It also earned Morales two awards at graduation – including the “Outstanding Clinical Student Award.”
“I got to start doing that work before practicing (law),” she said, adding that she enjoyed the different pace of the clinic work compared to lessons inside the classroom. “Class doesn’t have the same urgency. Somebody is waiting on your phone call. You have a responsibility. Clients are counting on you.”
She said she met judges and other court personnel and enjoyed the friendships she made with the other clinic students and the mentorship of Professor Laura Cohen, the clinic’s director. With Cohen’s help Morales and another student worked on a brief about stop and seizure.
Morales also was Co-Editor-in-Chief of the Rutgers Race and Law Review, served as a Marsha Wenk Fellow, worked for the HIV Law Project and Legal Aid Society, and was an extern in the Federal Public Defender’s Office and a member of the Rutgers Law Minority Student Program.
A graduate of the University of Chicago, Morales said she liked the affordability of Rutgers Law and its quality education, “Rutgers let me do what I wanted to do. Rutgers is a place (that helped me) with my dreams of becoming a public defender and engage in public interest law.”