Emily Mordecai '18
As law students, we pay a vast majority of our scholarly attention to judges. In completing our daily assignments, we almost exclusively read articulations of the law authored by judges. We pay a large part of our celebrity attention to judges as well; we can quote Justice Scalia’s zingers in defense of the Fourth Amendment more easily than we can sing along to some songs on the radio, and we proudly rock clothes, stickers, and coffee mugs featuring the Notorious R.B.G. In her opening remarks at this weekend’s first annual Shaping Justice Conference, Dean Goluboff invited attendees to celebrate an additional set of rock stars responsible for composing some of our nation’s proudest moments of social progress: lawyers. Her message set the perfect tone for a weekend of celebration and reflection for the conference’s attendees, including UVa Law professors and faculty members, more than 130 law students from multiple law schools, and roughly fifty practicing public interest attorneys.
Teresa Hepler, President of the Public Interest Law Association (PILA), had this same mission of celebration in mind when she teamed up with Amber Strickland and Tex Pasley, co-Presidents of the Law and Public Service Program, as well as UVa Law’s Public Service Center to assemble the conference. Together, they designed the two-day conference, aptly titled Shaping Justice, so that law students and practicing attorneys alike could meet and hear from the lawyers behind an impressive array of social justice achievements. The conference centered around two major components: professor-led panels, during which practicing attorneys shared their personal experiences in various fields of public interest law, and interactive workshops, where attorneys and community leaders shared practical tips and skills for those interested in promoting and litigating various public interest causes.
After Dean Goluboff’s welcome address on Friday afternoon, conference attendees attended two back-to-back panels of their choosing. A number of student organizations and student-led journals sponsored a total of six panels covering public interest topics including land use, women in the criminal justice system, environmental law, juvenile justice, domestic violence awareness, and housing discrimination. Professor Josh Bowers, co-Director of the Law and Public Service (LPS) program, moderated the Issues Facing Women in the Criminal Justice System panel, which featured three panelists who have devoted their careers to advocating for female prisoners. The panel offered attendees the unique opportunity to hear from one panelist named Anisah Sabur, who spent eight years in prison before being released and joining the National Council for Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls. As a member of the New York-based council, she advocates for a number of initiatives including a ban on the handcuffing of pregnant inmates to and from hospital deliveries. The panel’s attendees also heard from Georgia Lerner, Executive Director of the Women’s Prison Association, as well as Abigail Turner, the Legal Aid Justice Center lawyer who won the 2012 settlement against Fluvanna County Women’s Prison that improved the medical care for inmates of the central Virginia prison.
An evening networking reception followed the Friday afternoon panels and provided attendees with the opportunity to meet the panelists and other practicing public interest lawyers. After the reception, student members of PILA and LPS convened in Caplin Auditorium along with UVa Law professors, alumni, and practicing attorneys for a banquet honoring six recipients of the 2017 Shaping Justice Awards. The awards recognize UVa Law Alumni who have made outstanding contributions to public interest law in their respective fields. Dean Goluboff presented the Lifetime Achievement in Public Service Shaping Justice Award to Jim Hingeley, the 1998-2016 Public Defender for the City of Charlottesville and County of Albemarle. After graduating from UVa Law, Mr. Hingeley founded the public defender’s office of Lynchburg, Virginia. He later founded the Charlottesville office in 1998, after Virginia’s then-governor vetoed commission of the office four times from 1994 to 1998. Shaping Justice Awards for specific practice areas were given to Stephen Pevar, staff attorney for the ACLU’s Racial Justice Program, Rob Lee, Executive Director of the Virginia Capital Representation Resource Center, Jennifer D. Ricketts, Director of the Federal Programs Branch of the Civil Division of the U.S. Department of Justice, Vijay Shanker, Deputy Chief of the Appellate Section of the Criminal Division of the U.S. Department of Justice, and Jacqueline M. Leonard, a Judge Advocate for the U.S. Navy JAG Corps.
Shaping Justice Conference attendees reconvened at the law school on Saturday morning for a networking breakfast, then broke out into an attorney-led workshop of their choosing. The workshops focused on a large array of specific skills, including conducting initial client and victim interviews, identifying victims of human trafficking, exploring and handling trauma with clients and victims, community organizing and policy advocacy, and lawyering in the field of civil rights. Sabrina Talukder, a Legal Aid staff attorney practicing in New York City, led the workshop on identifying victims of human trafficking. After sharing a number of both fictional and real-life human trafficking cases (did you know Cinderella fits the legal definition of a human trafficking victim?), Ms. Talukder presented a number of hypothetical scenarios to attendees and helped them shape legal strategies for presenting their cases to criminal and immigration judges.
The conference concluded with a key-note address from Robin Steinberg, founder of the Bronx Defenders. After graduating from law school, Ms. Steinberg worked in the field of criminal defense and quickly realized her cases did not compartmentalize themselves into distinct subjects of criminal law, property law, and family law like her law school curriculum did. Ms. Steinberg combined her intense passion for advocacy and a spark of ingenuity to found the Bronx Defenders using a “holistic defense” model, wherein one team of attorneys assists its clients with criminal matters as well as civil, family law, and immigration matters intertwined with their cases. After briefly sharing her experience in the Bronx, Ms. Steinberg discussed a recent project that brought her to Tulsa, Oklahoma, the current leader in a national trend of increasing incarceration rates of women. Her project, entitled Still She Rises, seeks to provide holistic defense to the women of Tulsa. Ms. Steinberg shared her trying experience in implementing the project thus far, and reflected on the culture clash and resistance she felt along the way. She noted that such tribulations are inevitable in the field of public interest work, but are ultimately worth the victories public interest lawyers achieve for their causes.
Ms. Steinberg ended her address with an interesting observation that law students and young lawyers tend to focus their spirits on large-scale, broad-reaching impact litigation. She encouraged her audience to remember the virtues of working for and with individual people, one case at a time. After having heard Ms. Steinberg’s stories of particular women in Tulsa, and Ms. Talukder’s stories of particular immigrants in New York City, and Ms. Turner’s stories of particular inmates of the Fluvanna County Women’s Prison, my enthusiasm for public interest work was revitalized. The Shaping Justice conference provided an ideal opportunity to meet and celebrate the particular lawyers behind the success stories of these and countless other clients and victims.