[Editor’s Note: The Campbell Law Observer is taking a break from its usual editorial cycle to present first-person accounts from our law students who have enjoyed summer internships across the nation. This is the first of four submissions to be published during the first week of the fall of 2013 semester.]
I have always idealized the role of the defense attorney in our justice system. Growing up the daughter of a criminal defense attorney, I was taught that to choose that path in life is to fulfill a true calling in life that is particular to only a few. My father, a dyed-in-the-wool liberal Democrat, taught me that to be an exalted public defender is to defend those whom life has so neglected, and to truly be doing God’s work.
It has been a great source of pride for me to walk into the courthouse every day with my father, and for him to get choked up with tears when he saw me advocating in the courtroom this summer.
This summer was a homecoming of sorts for me. I grew up in Fayetteville, and my father still practices there. Despite a ten-year absence from being a Cumberland County resident, I chose to come to the Public Defender’s office there because I thought it would be of great advantage to me to be in a smaller office, and to be the only intern at that office. It has also been a great source of pride for me to walk into the courthouse every day with my father, and for him to get choked up with tears when he saw me advocating in the courtroom this summer. All of those seemed like great reasons when I took the internship. In early spring, however, the magnitude of what I had done started to weigh heavily upon my shoulders. I had not lived in Fayetteville for a decade, and that choice was both purposeful and philosophical. I really prided myself on “making it out” of that city that has held captive so many of the people with whom I grew up.
But “going back to Fayetteville” ended up being the source of my most successful moments in law school to date. What I gained from my time in Fayetteville was a true sense of confidence in my abilities as a future lawyer, and the knowledge that I had “answered the call”—fulfilling a true purpose in life.
You see, it took me a long time to get to this point. I took the LSAT in college and then ultimately decided to pursue a Master’s degree in political science. I was accepted into a PhD program that I felt very strongly about. However, a part of me felt that I was really missing something. I was tired of sitting behind a desk all day, analyzing and manipulating data and constantly worrying about when the next grant would come in. In my high school and college days I had felt so passionate about politics in its human form. When I began my graduate career in political science, I thought that I was in an intellectual exercise that would impact lives. What had seemed so inspiring back then just felt stale and useless now, the summer before I was supposed to move to Chicago to begin my PhD. I put in an application to Campbell using my four-year-old LSAT score and a hope and a prayer. Campbell was the only school to which I applied, and when I was accepted I felt like it was the start of something big for me.
My innate yearning to live the “human experience” in my chosen profession has been fulfilled.
So, it was an arduous and soul-searching process for me to come to this point in my life where I felt ready to become a lawyer. My innate yearning to live the “human experience” in my chosen profession has been fulfilled. In fact, I got a little more of the human experience than perhaps I was prepared for! In the course of my job this summer, I had to work a lot on overcoming my own pre-judgments. It was hard to know what to say at first when people said things like, “oh it must be so hard for you, defending all those criminals” or “So, do you make sure that the people you’re defending aren’t guilty?” I expressed these frustrations to another attorney with our office (who incidentally is a Campbell alumnus) and he finally gave me the perfect response: “You believe in the Constitution, don’t you?” Armed with these seven words in my back pocket, I was ready to take on anyone who had strong words for my chosen profession and me.
While I always threw those words out good-naturedly and with a laugh, the remark is pointed and speaks of a higher truth about criminal defense attorneys (and their law student counterparts). The general public loves to conceive that we are “immoral,” and that our job is to get people off scot-free. In reality, however, criminal defense attorneys are watchdogs. The government cannot take a person’s rights and liberties away without taking certain procedural steps and satisfying the admittedly high burden of proof of “beyond a reasonable doubt.” Public defenders are the watchdogs that make sure that the government follows all of those procedures to the finest line, and that the government is able to meet that burden.
This summer, I found that being that watchdog is truly the job that fulfills my sense of purpose in life.
It is inevitable that some guilty people will fall through the cracks when the government does not take the necessary care to follow their own procedural safeguards, or if a crime is simply not provable to the extent necessary for a conviction. But that some guilty people will go free is the price that must be paid for our cherished constitutional system, wherein the government cannot simply take people’s rights and liberties away at its own whim. This summer, I found that being that watchdog is truly the job that fulfills my sense of purpose in life. Indigent defendants are most susceptible to government abuse, and I took great pride in protecting them this summer. I gained confidence in myself and my chosen profession in the process, and I know that I will take that confidence with me to my next externship at the Public Defender’s office in Wake County in the fall, and keep succeeding.
Caroline Gregory is a 3L and will be graduating from Campbell University’s School of Law in the Spring of 2014. She may be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.