One reason I chose to attend Rutgers Law School was for its curriculum and programming geared toward those interested in pursuing a career in public interest law. The Social Justice Scholars (SJS) program brings together students committed to combating issues faced by marginalized communities in our current justice system. SJS students are presented with opportunities for interaction with the local community through pro bono projects, are guided by a faculty mentor, and even receive support for regional conferences they can attend within the broader legal community.
Earlier this year, the 32nd annual Robert M. Cover Retreat took place in Peterborough, New Hampshire with the central theme “Resistance: Our Human Rights are Under Attack. How do we use our JDs as a weapon against injustice?” The Retreat was created to develop a network of law students and practitioners from across the country, as well as establish a forum for those in the community to discuss how to best enact change. As someone born and raised on the west coast, attending a human rights-centered conference in this location was an easy decision for me to make.
I must admit, however, that I have a streak of over-committing myself. My physical and mental being forgive me these extra exertions because they know that I want to take advantage of as many opportunities as I can while I’m in law school. So as February fast approached, it dawned on me that I was about to go out of town and sacrifice an entire weekend with legal writing deadlines looming and class outlines that frankly needed a little more “outlining.” However, I realized that a weekend away, surrounded by like-minded law students and public interest leaders was just what I needed to remind me why I’m here in the first place.
This year’s retreat witnessed the largest ever delegation of students from 29 different law schools. Over the course of the weekend, students attended various workshops centered on various topics, such as civil rights issues, immigration access, reproductive rights, and much more. I found myself starstruck throughout the Retreat as the keynote speakers and workshop presenters were directors of national and international human rights organizations, leaders from various ACLU chapters, professors and deans of law schools, and other figureheads leading the charge for progress.
One of the most affirming moments for me took place at the workshop called “We Sleep Fine, Thank you: Working as a Public Defender.” Three public defenders spoke to a group of about 30 students about what being a PD means to them. They discussed how it’s necessary to redefine what victory means for each client. One presenter, a PD for 18 years in his capital unit, spoke about the importance of having humanity for his clients. He said he felt privileged to listen to his clients recount their lives and felt honored to share their stories; it was his duty to get people to see his clients for who they really were. Even though many of his clients were accused of committing heinous crimes, he proudly declared that no one should be defined by the last worst thing they’ve done. I found myself nodding my head enthusiastically throughout the entire session and even had moments where I wanted to cry because of the heavy and heartbreaking stories shared. Compassion and empathy were some of the takeaways from this session, and the skills I believe are needed to make a great advocate. More importantly, I learned that to be a truly great advocate, perseverance is needed. This is the type of public defender I hope to one day become.
It is easy to get bogged down in the daily grind and struggles of law school. Have I been keeping up with my readings? Do I understand the bigger concepts from class? But also, am I taking care of my physical health, and have I checked in with my mental health lately? Equally important is taking time to remember the bigger picture and, if you can, attend a conference or seminar to help remind you of your purpose. How will I use my JD to serve those who need an advocate to listen and tell their story?