August 15, 2016
Sean Hill (HLS, 2012) attributes his journey to Youth Represent to three factors: his upbringing, a life-changing elective his 1L year, and clinical experience at HLS. Having grown up in under-resourced neighborhoods, Sean personally witnessed early-on the effects of over-policing and over-criminalization in Black communities, and the resilience of that same community. As a result, he knew early on that he wanted to have a career supporting and empowering the very community that had given him so much.
Yet for a while, even after entering HLS, Hill felt that the law was inaccessible and had little application to present-day issues. That was until he enrolled in a course his 1L spring semester called “Debating Race & American Law” with a visiting professor from UC Berkeley, Ian Haney Lopez. Hill describes Haney Lopez’s class as “transformative” because it put oppression and racism into not just legal language, but also accessible language that gave law a new meaning for him.
Following his 1L summer at Sanctuary for Families, Hill pursued several clinical courses at HLS. At the WilmerHale Family Law Clinic, he worked primarily with LGBT families, often around issues of domestic violence, and at the Criminal Justice Institute, where he had full exposure to criminal practice. As co-chair of the Leadership and Mentorship Program of the Black Law Students Association, Hill soon realized that what he enjoyed most was working with young people, particularly young people of color. Around that time, as he started looking into a particular career path, it also struck him that he enjoyed both civil and criminal matters, as opposed to just public defense. This blend of practice areas is one of the aspects of Youth Represent that Hill loves most, he says.
Following law school, Hill did a two-year Equal Justice Works (EJW) fellowship at Youth Represent. At the time, Youth Represent’s civil practice primarily involved matters of employment discrimination, licensing, and housing, all of which Hill describes as the collateral consequences people are most familiar with, following and individual’s conviction or arrest. However, Hill took a particular interest in the family ramifications of arrests and convictions and how family relationships and family bonds suffer. In public defense, this practice can be limited to neglect and abuse proceedings, but defendants do not receive representation in custody and visitation proceedings or in child support matters. This motivated Hill to launch the Family Stability Project, which provides representation to formerly incarcerated youth involved in Family Court matters. The practice is one-of-its-kind in the legal world because it focuses on how Family Court, particularly issues of child support, can funnel people into the criminal justice system, finding a unique overlap between family law and the criminal justice system.
In 2015, at the end of his EJW fellowship, Hill was promoted to Senior Staff Attorney at Youth Represent, the role in which he currently serves. A typical week for him includes a combination of on-site work at community-based organizations, court hearings, research, and supervising other attorneys and interns. He says the most unique part of the organization is its Community Lawyering Model, which allows attorneys to meet youth in their own neighborhoods and communities, through job-readiness and alternative-to-incarceration programs. An average on-site day might include conducting a know-your-rights workshop, doing individual confidential intakes with each of the young people, and identifying issues for later representation. On days when he’s not on-site, Hill can be found in court all over New York City or in the office doing legal research on various family law and criminal justice related matters.
Working with youth navigating the criminal justice system certainly has its emotional tolls. Hill points out that he cannot overlook the fact that many of his clients look like him, a Black man, and face experiences that resonate personally for him and his younger Black siblings. “I’m often anxious about my siblings [and loved ones] being subjected to these same systems,” he says. But he draws strength from knowing that, for many of his clients, he may be the first attorney they have met who looks like them and shares their background and perceptions. Another source of strength and support is his involvement with the Law for Black Lives Collective, a network dedicated to supporting uprisings and demonstrators across the country, especially those associated with the Black Lives Matter movement. For Hill, the Collective is rewarding, given the real limitations of working within the legal system all day.
For HLS students, Hill has two pieces of key advice. The first is to be consistent. “Don’t pursue something because other people are doing it or telling you that you should. Pursue something that will sincerely make you happy and positively impact people around you.” The second is to avoid rushing into a career. “Make sure the career you pick speaks to your passion and your commitments,” Hill suggests.