Unlocking Justice: Yates Addresses Public Service Students

Lena Welch ‘20
New Media Editor

UVA Law students trekked up to Crystal City, Virginia for the Equal Justice Works Conference and Career Fair Friday and Saturday. Students took part in a couple of marathon days, interviewing for public interest jobs, introducing themselves to employers through table talks, and learning more about some of the social justice issues facing the legal profession. The students also had the opportunity to listen to a conversation with former Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates, moderated by Judge Ann Claire Williams.

Yates voiced a clear message to the aspiring public interest lawyers: unlock justice. Yates recounted not only her 27-year career as a public servant, but her early exposure to the legal profession through her father and grandfather, who both served as judges in her native state of Georgia. Although Yates initially tried to resist the family business, after two years working on Capitol Hill, she began law school.

Yates maintained an interest in government. She developed the interest at a young age, recognizing that people “want to have a voice in the things that are impacting you day-to-day.” She also maintained a fondness for Washington, D.C., because she said it was always exciting. “Our local news in D.C. was everybody else’s national news, and I liked sort of being in the center of that.”

After discussing meeting her husband when they were associates at King & Spalding, Yates took a moment to reflect on losing her father––just days before her law school graduation.

“My dad was a high-achieving, Type A kind of person, and he had suffered from depression for a number of years,” Yates said. “My mom and my sister and I really pushed him hard to get help. But, particularly for men at that time, he felt like there was a real stigma associated with any kind of mental illness, and so he resisted getting help. It was an up-an-down kind of thing, and in the months leading up to his death, it was particularly acute. And gosh, I just think back now of just what an incredible race that was. We know that depression can often times be treated as long as people seek the help that they need, and so after sort of this time when I seemed to have some sort of––I guess I’m not entirely sure what this is––but my thought was if I can do anything to help destigmatize mental illness and depression, to encourage people who are suffering to get help, or family members or friends of those who are suffering to be able to get help, that’s the most important thing I can do now.”

Yates also offered some advice for students during their time in law school. Reminding them not to get caught up in the ugly side of competition, Yates noted that someone else’s failure is not your accomplishment, and in fact, “that’s such a really lousy way of thinking or a lousy type of person to be.” She also implored the students to take their charge seriously; lawyers are entrusted with pursuing justice.

“The fact of the matter is, you’re not just a regular person anymore when you’re a lawyer,” Yates said. “You have an ability to be able to obtain justice for people that regular folks just don’t have. You have to be a lawyer, whether it’s in a civil context or a criminal context, to be able to do that. So, there are people out there who are counting on all of us, and in my view that’s different from any other profession. There’s lots of other worthy occupations out there, but there’s not really another occupation that is essential for everybody else in the world to be able to obtain justice, and that’s really going to be in your hands.”

Yates noted that the big, headline-grabbing cases are not what define you as a lawyer; it’s the opposite. The routine cases profoundly impact ordinary people, according to Yates, and those are the cases that move the gears of our justice system.

Yates and Williams recounted some such cases during Yates’s career, including a case which relied on a theory of adverse possession that returned a verdict by an all-white jury in Georgia for her black clients. The pair also discussed the importance of being a trustworthy lawyer as they examined Yates’s prosecution of Eric Rudolph, the Olympic Park bomber, and her work with his attorney to identify where he had buried the remaining dynamite.

The two touched on Yates’s brief time serving as acting Attorney General and her thought process behind coming out against President Donald Trump’s first travel ban. Yates noted that she was not convinced that it was “lawful or constitutional,” and could not allow her attorneys to argue that this ban had nothing to do with religion because “no lawyer should go into court and argue something that’s not grounded in truth. The Department of Justice surely shouldn’t do that, and particularly when you’re talking about something that’s as fundamental as freedom of religion.”

Yates closed by tasking the students in the audience with unlocking justice themselves.

“I think you’re going to find during the time of your career,” Yates said, “that the work that you’re gravitating toward now, public interest work, will be the most satisfying way that you can use the legal diploma that you’re getting. You know, I’ve told people before: it’s worth every penny you don’t make because there is nothing like a mission to be satisfied. And look, I know lots of lawyers in lots of different roles that make a ton of money, and that is absolutely miserable. . .Having a mission, something you believe in, and knowing that you are using this special ability as a lawyer to make the world a better place, you’re going to find it to be the most gratifying professional choice you’re going to make.”



Lena Welch