Whether they are defending the rights of inmates, arguing for changes in state and federal legislation, representing immigrants facing deportation, or serving low-income offenders who could not otherwise find adequate representation, public interest attorneys face some of the profession’s most challenging legal work.
But just ask those lawyers how satisfying their work is.
We did. And in the following post, you’ll find one the story of Ashley Adams (’11), a staff attorney at the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Ala.
I do a little of everything. My legal work involves working with inmates on death row through appeals or investigations into prison conditions. I do prison visits and talk with inmates about various conditions in the facilities. I do work on race and poverty projects, such as soil collections and marker installations for victims of racial terror lynchings. I also work with the Equal Justice Inititive’s Legacy Museum and National Memorial for Peace and Justice staff. I travel to do presentations about our work to get people educated on how to contextualize the criminal justice system in the race and poverty narrative.
I love it. I’ve been involved in advocacy work pretty much since I graduated in 2011, but the criminal defense world has always been a part of my life. My dad went to prison when I was 12, and he’s now done 21 years of a life-term sentence in Georgia.
I didn’t get into this work because I thought I could help my dad. I know that getting too entangled with family in legal troubles is always get messy. But I wanted to be a part of the type of work that could help my dad, or maybe help someone else’s dad.
As an undergraduate, I majored in sociology because I was fascinated by people and human behavior and how different environments affect behavior. Courses in mental health, criminology, and family dynamics were always what interested me most and those courses stuck with me.
When I stepped out of this line of work for 10 months, that’s what convinced me this is where I needed to be. Nothing else captures my attention like this. This work is what drives me and gets me out of bed in the morning. It’s nice to know when I get up that I will spend my day being of service to others.
People not understanding why you do it. Other lawyers don’t know how you do it. But we all took the same courses in criminal procedure and constitutional law. I don’t know how they can’t do it. It’s kind of sad. Everyone has rights and no matter what they did, they deserve to have their rights respected and implemented even when they did or were accused of doing horrible things. There are rights they still retain. And someone has to stand up for them. They are in a position where people don’t listen to them because of poverty or skin color. We are in a position as lawyers to help them. People don’t realize how easily we can all have our rights violated and how our privilege protects us from being heard or not heard.
Knowing that you’re helping someone. I don’t see my work as something that is ever harming the world in the end. So it’s good to wake up and feel my work isn’t harmful and benefits all of us. If we respect the rights of the poor and those who are trampled on, we’re protecting the rights of everyone. If you’re deciding to take someone’s rights away based on poverty, skin color, sex, etcetera, you’re allowing a crack to open that would be really hard to close because you’re making decisions based on things people can’t help. If you can save someone’s life, that’s a really rewarding thing to accomplish. Getting someone get off of death row is a tremendous feeling, and knowing that happened because of the work you do … what could be better?
Be prepared to be emotionally, physically, and spiritually challenged. This profession needs people who are sympathetic and who care and understand. Everyone has a story – even people who do really horrible things. It is work that may take years to see a reward. It is work that cause you to experience tremendous losses. So set boundaries for yourself. Eight years out of law school, I’m still working on knowing when I need to take a break, when something is too much and need to step away. On this job, you might not eat, sleep, or step away from office, and if that happens you can become burned out bitter and cynical. You don’t operate well as a lawyer when you feel this way, and clients deserve healthy lawyers. So work hard to keep yourself and your state of mind healthy.
This is the first of series of interviews featuring our alumni who work in public interest law, originally published in the May 2019 issue of Tennessee Law Magazine.