By Paula Kelly, LLM ’22
The number of opportunities to advocate on behalf of clients was one of the main reasons that I applied to Harvard Law School to study an LL.M. after completing my legal studies in London. I was aware of the Harvard Defenders’ work representing low-income people accused of misdemeanours in criminal show-cause hearings before I arrived in Cambridge in Fall 2021. Law students cannot appear before criminal courts in the U.K. so I was interested to find out more about the work. Hearing the organization’s President, Jonathan Roberts, speak so passionately about the advocacy undertaken as well as the Defenders’ broader objectives of anti-racism and challenging mass incarceration made the decision to become involved very easy.
Since joining the organization in September, I have represented clients accused of public disorder, assault, and drug possession. The Boston courts have differed in their responses to the pandemic, so I have had a combination of hearings in person and on Zoom. The latter is likely going to remain an option long after the pandemic has ended. Interacting with a clerk magistrate and police officers on video requires a different type of advocacy and is a different experience for our clients from being in the courthouse. I have seen first-hand the effects – good and bad – of courts’ adoption of video technology. Clients with disabilities or responsibilities that make getting to court difficult might favour the convenience and ease of Zoom, but I have worked with other clients for whom the technology is a barrier. Of course, the problem can also be the reverse, and clients have taken the day off work only for the technology to fail and the hearing be postponed for another few months.
I had some initial nerves about how I would navigate the court system and American criminal law, but they were quickly dispelled when I realised the extent and regularity of training on every aspect of Defenders’ work, from taking calls in my weekly intake hour to the ethical duties of client engagement to the process of assisting people to seal their Criminal Offender Record Information. I have received incredible support for all my cases to help to ensure the client is receiving the best possible advice and representation. As well as a case partner, every Defender is part of a team that meets weekly to discuss cases with one another as well as with our clinical supervisor, John Salsberg, and our program manager Sama ElBannan. By discussing case strategy and debriefing, I not only get the benefit of others’ experiences and insights, I have also had the chance to contribute to other Defenders’ cases.
Harvard Defenders prides itself on client-focused advocacy and putting them at the center of everything that we do. I have been so fortunate to meet and work with people who go over and beyond for the people that we represent and for the organization. The ideal outcome that we can secure in a show-cause hearing is a dismissal, whereby the complaint does not proceed to trial and it is not included in the client’s record. Yet, even then, we see the harm that any interaction with the criminal justice system can cause and the wider issues affecting our clients. Being part of Defenders and working with peers dedicated to public defense has enabled me to learn more about carceralism in the US and reflect upon the role of attorneys in this landscape.
As Harvard Defenders approaches its 75th year as the only legal service in the state that focuses exclusively on providing pro-bono representation to low-income defendants in show-cause hearings, it continues to provide a vital service for clients and a space for Harvard Law School students who want to put our legal training to make a positive impact on individuals and the system they find themselves within.
I have been struck by the commitment that my fellow student attorneys, John, and Sama have to the people that we represent and to the organization. It is what ensures that Defenders delivers a professional and high-quality of service, whilst fostering a community amongst us and our clients.