Hometown: Norfolk, VA
Current Job: Staff Attorney—Federal Defender Program, Northern District of Illinois
YLS year: 2005
Clerkship: Judge David Coar, U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois; Judge Roger Gregory, Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals
Activities at YLS: Board of Yale Law Women; 50th anniversary of Brown v. Board conference planning; Lowenstein Clinic; Nonprofit Organizations clinic; Yale General Counsel’s office (clinic); Reading Group for Brown v. Board; BLSA
What do you do? How did you get to your current job?
I have been a staff attorney at the Federal Defender Program in the Northern District of Illinois since 2010. I represent indigent people from across northern Illinois who are accused of federal crimes. I represent my clients in trial court and appellate court, in all types of cases. About one‐third of my caseload is fraud—including bank fraud, bankruptcy fraud, credit card fraud, identity theft, wire fraud, mail fraud, social security fraud, theft of government funds, and more. Another third of my caseload is guns and drugs—clients charged with possessing guns, selling or attempting to sell narcotics, and related cases. A final third of my caseload is simply a big mix ranging from bank robbery, to immigration offenses, to child pornography and other sex offenses. My office assigns cases in an extremely egalitarian manner that contributes to my job satisfaction: whatever cases come in on my monthly “duty day”—whether it is the biggest terrorism case or a minor supervised release violation case—become my cases. My average case, through sentencing, lasts about a year. I juggle approximately 30 to 50 cases at one time, all at various stages and of varying complexity and demand in terms of time. I represent clients in all stages of their cases. I take their case from arrest (or from the moment the U.S. Attorney’s Office notifies a client that he or she is under investigation) to trial or a guilty plea, and to sentencing. If a client wants to appeal, I handle the appeal. If a client wants to appeal again to the Supreme Court, I would work on that appeal as well.
In law school I knew I would work in the public interest but I never gave any thought to criminal defense. After graduation, I clerked for a federal district court judge and then a federal appellate court judge. Afterwards, I joined a large law firm as a litigation associate for three years. As I began applying for public interest positions, I enjoyed hearing former federal defenders talk about their jobs. The job seemed to have many of the elements that I sought including the opportunity to protect rights, to fight for those in need, and to enjoy variety. I now have the dream job that I did not even know was my dream job. I always knew I wanted to be in the public interest. The law firm was the aberration.
How does your work now compare to your work at the law firm?
I work harder and longer hours than I did as a law firm associate. But I do not mind the harder work, longer hours, and lower pay because my job has meaning to me. I provide quality representation to people who would not be able to afford it, and I am there for clients at a most dreary and frightening juncture: when they are being judged for the worst day or days in their life.
What has surprised you about your current job?
There is more variety in criminal law than I imagined before coming to my job, and being able to do both trial and appellate work is incredibly satisfying. The variety does not end there. I am also a negotiator: because more than 95% of defendants choose to plead guilty, I am negotiating plea deals all of the time. I am a counselor, helping clients to navigate difficult choices. I am a strategist, trying to determine the wisest way to litigate a case and achieve the best resolution possible for my client. I am an investigator, hunting down facts and evidence as we prepare for hearings, trial, or sentencing. I am a teacher, introducing clients and their families to the federal court system, which is vastly different from the state court system with which they may be familiar. I am a lay social worker, as many of our clients have disadvantaged backgrounds, extensive mental health histories, substance abuse issues, and other everyday challenges. We work with mitigation specialists and masters’ level social work students in our office to thoroughly investigate our clients’ backgrounds, present an effective mitigation case to the sentencing judge, and help our clients get the resources they need. (This is another type of variety my job offers: I work not only with clients, investigators, and specialists in our office, but also probation officers, pretrial service officers, prosecutors, expert witnesses, client’s families, juries, and judges. I am constantly interacting with different people.) My job is rewarding because it requires me to fill all of these roles at different points. My job is also exhausting because it requires me to fill all of these roles!
2. LAW SCHOOL
What was your most valuable YLS experience?
One of my most valuable experiences was planning a conference called “The Legacy of Brown v. Board of Education: Reflections on the Last Fifty Years.” In giving me the opportunity to organize it, YLS demonstrated how much faith it puts in its students. YLS also gives extreme support to public interest, and the CDO did a great job bringing in alumni to talk about their jobs. I went to many of those talks and was able to explore a variety of careers.
The ability to dive right into clinics as a first-year student, to get your foot in the door sooner rather than later, to enjoy your classes for their own sake, without the pressure of grades, made my law school experience better than had I gone elsewhere.
What kind of engagement have you had with YLS after graduations?
I’ve been a YLW mentor in Chicago for the past two summers. Law school students who are working in the city are matched up with a mentor, and we meet several times to discuss law and how they’re settling in. I was the co-chair of my five-year law school reunion, spent three years on the executive committee of the law school, and I still serve on the informal steering committee for the YLS Association of Illinois. We host panels and events on topics like gay marriage in Illinois and Governor Blagojevich’s sentencing.
What skills do you rely on now that perhaps YLS did not emphasize enough?
None of my trial skills I got in law school—but to be fair, at the time I didn’t know I would become a trial lawyer. Frankly, they’re best learned on the job anyway.
What have been some of your biggest accomplishments and biggest challenges?
My biggest accomplishment has been defending the rights of the accused. My biggest challenge has been defending the rights of the accused.
It’s not an easy job—it’s not for the faint of heart. Only a fraction of cases go to trial or get appealed, and the government wins more than 90% of the few cases that do go to trial. This means that almost all of my cases end up at a sentencing hearing where sound oral and written advocacy is paramount in persuading a judge to impose a fair and appropriate sentence. One must also have thick skin and a penchant for pressing forward in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds: winning must mean shaving needless years and months off of a client’s sentence, helping the judge to craft a sentence that might get a client the help he or she needs, or negotiating a smarter plea deal. We do not win trials and contested hearings often but we must keep trying. There are numerous examples of the defense bar fighting an issue over and over and losing all of the time, only to have the Supreme Court or Congress finally weigh in and right a wrong that the defense bar has been pushing against for years.
So often everything is stacked against your client—the governmental incentives to plead guilty, the way the laws themselves are written. It’s sometimes hard to deal with perceptions of public defenders; in our society we don’t value things we don’t pay for, and since we don’t pay for public defenders, sometimes that means people think we’re not good lawyers. But you just keep fighting and pressing every day because there are victories now and then. And when they come you feel justice has been served.
What advice do you most wish you’d received as a law student?
The advice I have, which was given to me, is “don’t worry.” You don’t have to know what you want to do—you should be using your law school career to be exploring all the things you could do. Experiment! Try different clinics, go to all the CDO talks, and know that it’s still quite possible that you’ll graduate and still not know. Take your first step. No step that you take has to be permanent. Take a job, try it out, and remember that nothing is permanent.
Be sure to keep your eyes open even after you graduate—my current job was definitely not on my radar when I was at YLS. But I kept an open mind, and talked to lots of people.
Has being a woman affected you in your career, and if so, how?
My being a woman is so tied up in my being an African American. When people see me they see a black woman.
I have a burden in the courthouse to be very competent. There are too many people who will assume I’m not. I’m also still young—I’ve had clients call me “kiddo” and “hun.” But sometimes my clients’ families are very grateful to see me, a young black woman in a position of power. I can inspire a client’s child without even knowing.
But competence has its limits; go too far and you’re considered aggressive. I’ve had a prosecutor ask, “Why are you yelling?” I wasn’t yelling, but if you’re a woman being forceful and making a point, you must be yelling. I don’t know if coming from a man (or a white woman) it would be seen that way—advocacy styles are limited for women.
What traits impress you most in young lawyers?
Curiosity, asking strong questions, and staying engaged. Good communication skills. Enthusiasm. It’s also important to be open-minded and non-judgmental—in my job in particular.
I admire young lawyers with the wisdom to know when they need to ask questions and a willingness to ask questions. But there’s also a question balance point, because you don’t want to interrupt too much; one of my interns will ask, “When would be a good time to talk today?” and ask her questions all at once. That’s a good balance.