Stein Scholars in Criminal DefenseWe spoke with four Stein Scholars graduates in the field of criminal defense to find out about the frustrations and satisfactions that go along with their work, as well as about their career paths and suggestions for current students.
Benjamin Goldstein '10, Bronx Defenders
Why defense work?
I love my work as a public defender for lots of different reasons. On a grand scale, I believe that criminal defense work is at the forefront of the fight against pervasive racial and class injustice that people in this city face every day. My favorite part of my job is working one-on-one with clients on a daily basis and the relationships that result from that work. My job involves working with people who often face a multitude of difficult challenges that drove them into the criminal justice system, as well as issues that stem from their involvement in the system. The Bronx Defenders’ holistic model of representation helps me, and the team of lawyers and advocates with whom I work, approach each person’s case broadly and comprehensively. In other words, we strive to work beyond the individual criminal case that a client is fighting. Often the criminal case is not the only issue, or the most important issue, a client faces. Thus, we work with clients to identify what else is going on in their lives that we might also address. The majority of my cases involve misdemeanors, which are significant, but sometimes not as important as the other challenges that often go hand-in-hand with poverty, such as difficulties revolving around employment, housing and homelessness, benefits, immigration, and mental health, to name a few. My hope is that thinking holistically about each client helps treat each client with the dignity he or she deserves, while at the same time counteracting what can seem like a factory justice system.
The most challenging aspect of my job is to work in a system that treats poor people of color so harshly and unfairly on so many levels. It can be disheartening at times and there are certainly days I walk out and feel low as a result of what I have seen. It is also a challenge to have a high caseload and to remain organized and able to prioritize.
But don’t get me wrong: I love my job. I wake up every day feeling ready to go and being part of what I believe is a good fight. The work I do at the Bronx Defenders is challenging but incredibly necessary and rewarding.
Advice for Current Students
When I started law school, I thought I wanted to pursue a career that focused on international human rights work or impact litigation, but then several law school experiences helped me figure out that I wanted to work with clients. For example, the Criminal Defense Clinic was an amazing experience and helped me determine that I enjoy—and am better suited for—direct client representation than for policy or impact litigation-focused work.
Interning during law school was also key, and I encourage all students to intern at a place that you think might be the type of place you would want to work upon graduation. During my first summer, I interned at the Office of Georgia Capital Defenders in Atlanta. That experience also proved to me how much I enjoy working with clients.
Not only do internships help clarify what you like to do and what you are good at doing, but it can be a way of getting a foot in the door of a potential employer. It is a way to not only demonstrate interest but also prove that you can get the work done effectively. Employers often like to hire those who worked in their offices previously. Also, if possible, try to intern during the school year too. Those internships tend to be less competitive to secure and public interest organizations are happy to have good interns during the school year.
I also want to let students know that it is possible to move from a private firm to a career in public interest, but I think it helps to keep some things in mind that might facilitate the shift. Make sure to maintain your public interest contacts while you are in private practice, so they are solid when you decide to make the switch. I do think that the longer you stay in private practice, the harder it becomes to move into public interest. Also, while at a firm, identify people at the firm who are interesting to you, maybe because they came from the world of public interest or have prioritized pro bono cases. Make those connections: don’t be afraid to reach out to those people and ask to work with them.
Eric Montroy '03, Federal Community Defender Office of Philadelphia
What do you do?
I am an Assistant Federal Defender in the Capital Habeas Unit (CHU) of the Federal Community Defender Office in Philadelphia. I represent death-sentenced prisoners in post-conviction and clemency proceedings. Most of my clients are from Pennsylvania, which has the fourth largest death row in the country, but I also represent individuals from other jurisdictions, who were prosecuted by the federal government and sentenced to death.
My day-to-day work combines a mix of research and writing, courtroom advocacy, investigation, and records review. As a post-conviction lawyer, my focus is not limited to errors in the trial record, but also includes interviewing potential witnesses and finding records that deal with the lives of my clients. The investigation and the research often reveal that the performance of a client’s trial lawyer was deficient. But I have also had a number of cases where serious instances of prosecutorial misconduct have been uncovered. After the record has been reviewed and the investigation completed, I write petitions arguing that my client’s constitutional rights were violated at trial and ask that the conviction and death sentence be vacated. These petitions often lead to evidentiary hearings, which I have conducted in both state and federal courts. Post-conviction capital cases are generally litigated through the state courts, then in federal habeas corpus proceedings in district court, and then on appeal in circuit court. My office has also argued in the United States Supreme Court.
There are many challenges in capital post-conviction work. For starters, it can be extremely complicated procedurally, especially trying to navigate the interplay between the state and federal courts under the Anti-Terrorism Effective Death Penalty Act. On an emotional level, it is challenging because the work is constantly dealing with devastation. Not only are capital cases almost always emotionally charged but also many people on death row have serious mental health problems and come from horribly abusive and impoverished backgrounds. And ultimately, it is disconcerting to know that your client is set to be killed.
Previous Defense Work
I’ve been doing this work for six years. Before that I was a public defender at the Defender Association of Philadelphia. As a public defender, I tried many cases. I represented clients who were charged with everything from drug dealing to rape to attempted murder. My experience working as a trial layer in Philadelphia has been very helpful in my current job at the CHU.
The greatest reward has been getting some of my clients off of death row. In one case, I represented a client originally from the Bronx, whose conviction and death sentence were vacated after we discovered that the trial prosecutor withheld crucial exculpatory evidence.
Advice for Current Students
My advice to Stein Scholars is to get a sense of the kind of work that really motivates you and pursue it. Being a public interest lawyer can seem like an impossible dream at times when you are in law school, but it is absolutely attainable. Keep your eye on the prize and you will get there.
Joseph Reisz '03, Los Angeles County Alternate Public Defender's Office
What do you do?
I am an attorney in the Los Angeles County Alternate Public Defender’s Office. Before applying to law school, I was fortunate enough to intern at the New York Legal Aid Society’s criminal defense division and knew I wanted to be a public defender. My caseload is strictly felony cases ranging anywhere from drug possession to first-degree murder. California still imposes capital punishment and Los Angeles County has sent 228 inmates to death row (almost equal to the entire state of Texas) since 1976. I have two clients who are currently facing the death penalty. The practice in Los Angeles is trial heavy, and I have tried 51 cases to verdict in nine years.
Why defense work?
I love my job because I believe our Constitution, especially the Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, and Eighth Amendments, separates humans from animals, and I am working to make sure it remains successful. Meeting people accused of committing the most unspeakable acts and, nevertheless, witnessing their humanity provides an insight into the human race rarely perceived in other professions. It’s a daily occurrence in mine.
Advice for Current Students
The job is not without stress and self-sacrifice. I strongly encourage anyone interested in doing criminal defense work to intern with any public defender office and get to know public defenders. Listen to their funny and gruesome stories and their complaints. Try to get any first-hand experience in handling someone’s criminal case either through an internship or in the Criminal Defense Clinic. If you know you want to be a public defender, look around at all the various offices. Some stress trial work more than others. Some do capital work, others don’t. Some do vertical representation, others believe horizontal is better. Find an office that suits your expectations and will allow you to be the defender you want to be.
Sam Roberts '06, The Legal Aid Society, Criminal Defense
What motivates you?
Before attending law school, I managed and co-owned a few restaurants. After we sold the business, I started to think about law school. I spoke to a friend of a friend who encouraged me to volunteer at the Innocence Project. I was planning on interning there one day a week, but after the first day I was hooked and that was it.
We also provide a check on government power, which is very important. I am defending the Constitution every day. Not a day goes by that I am not relying on and protecting the Fourth, Fifth, and/or Fourteenth Amendments.
I clerked for Judge John Keenan ’54 (SDNY) for two years upon graduation from Fordham Law. I was on the fence about clerking, but Bruce Green persuaded me that a clerkship would be valuable and he was 100% right. In fact, it was an invaluable experience. Not only do you get to stand in the shoes of a judge but you also get to work on your writing, which is a great asset to have once you go on to practice.
The biggest challenge for me is managing the triage aspect of the work. I currently have a caseload of 103 open cases, including 25 indicted felonies, with at least one defendant facing life in prison. Just figuring out how to get to all of the courtrooms in a particular day is a challenge. Every day I have to determine which cases can stand to be left alone, so I can focus on the ones that need immediate attention. I am not sure one ever learns to perfect that.
I have been here five years. I already feel like a senior attorney, though many of my colleagues have been here for much longer. I never dread coming to work and often I am very excited about it. That is also the case with my colleagues. I think it is the best job in the world; it is great work from every perspective. And, I am always the person people want to talk to at cocktail parties!
Advice for Current Students
If I was a 1L or 2L seriously considering public defense work, I would make sure to take criminal procedure and evidence, enroll in the Criminal Defense Clinic, and seek out an internship with a public defender. When we review applications at the Legal Aid Society, we always look for students who can demonstrate a commitment to public defense.
Being part of the Stein Scholars Program is an asset because it provides a supportive community within a community. It was great to have a group of students who shared my values, particularly when many of the students in the broader community were focused on securing a firm job.