By Josh Alpert ’24

I came to Harvard Law School to pursue a career advocating for those affected by the carceral system. Being a Defender has given me the opportunity to do that while surrounded by a community of the most amazing people. I first learned about Harvard Defenders during an open house a few weeks after starting at Harvard. Immediately, I knew that I wanted to be a part of this amazing community. The more my friend and roommate at the time told me about his work helping others as a Defender, the more I knew I had to be one. While I applied a few times, the third time was the charm. When I got the news that I was selected, I was bursting with excitement—a feeling that has only increased with each passing day since.

My time with Harvard Defenders imbued me with a true appreciation for the importance of always centering the humanity of individuals affected by the carceral system and the unassailable power of a community dedicated to justice. Every intake you perform, case you take, client you help, mock you perform, and cross you prepare has at its heart the story of a person seeking help. Far too often, these stories get lost in our legal system.

On the outside, you will hear many stories as we advocate on our clients’ behalf. You’ll hear the story of the student facing constant harassment just trying to get through their day, the tenant trying to protect an elderly landlord, the person with a disability facing an unfair complaint in response to her attempt to seek justice, or the teenager struggling to get through the day who needs help, not incarceration. However, these stories we tell in court will inevitably be incomplete and constrained by the nature of legal practice.

The stories not told are often far more impactful on you, your client, and the practice of law. You won’t read about the many clients who will call to talk with you for three hours as they deal with a panic attack the night before a hearing that will forever shape their life. Nor will you hear about how painful it is to explain why, despite the brutality and clear wrong a client has faced, they must temper their righteous fury in front of the clerk for their own well-being. Something you also won’t deal with in a classic law school issue spotter is how the arguments at your disposal may be limited by your client’s desire to protect someone they love and care for or by an adjudicator’s unfortunate personal biases.

While taking on only a fraction of the countless cases that many other Defenders undertook, I have had the privilege of personally working directly on a few cases over this last year and a half, and indirectly assisting on countless others during mocks and team meetings. During that time, I got to experience some of these stories. In these moments, the endless case law, cross-examination tactics, and legal theories were washed away. I was reminded that the person I am talking to isn’t just a client but a human asking for help, which I and other Defenders were in a unique position to provide.

As part of the team at Defenders, I worked with others to strategize, craft arguments, counsel clients, and help clients obtain necessary social services. In essence, we provided clients with all the help we could give so that they could get through the very difficult experiences they were facing. That very human connection—helping and working with the client—formed the backbone of advocacy and defined success. Compassion, loyalty, calm, empathy, and honesty were the traits necessary to build the trust essential to successfully advocate for clients both inside and outside the courtroom. These experiences have made it impossible for me to ever hide behind doctrine without thinking about what the person named in any given case must have been going through outside the four corners of the judicial opinion.

Being part of Defenders also gave me a true appreciation for that old saying, “good lawyers never work alone.” At every team meeting, we discussed cases, and each team member offered ideas more brilliant than the next, informed by a near-infinite well of collective experience. “Mocks” were also a must, as an army of Defenders would show up for both you and your client, providing last-minute advice, case law, and strategy essential to success. The need for co-counsel on each case also became readily apparent, as each of us could lean on and trust each other to catch mistakes, provide assistance, give unique insight, and provide reinforcement when confronted with the unexpected. As my co-counsel I was so lucky to get to have two of the most amazing Defenders, Wesley Neal and Lexi Roberts, who taught me so much about what it means to be a Defender. Logistics, morale, and snack support from Sama ElBannan and the social work provided by Chris Pierce made all the difference in making sure we were set up to provide clients with files and the resources they need. Our Executive Director Bridget Pranzatelli took so much time out of her day to help me with my arguments and ensure that all of my paperwork was done. And perhaps most important were the calls, emails, and chats seeking advice from John Salsberg, King of Defenders, who has acted as a supervisor, mentor, and friend to countless generations of Defenders.

My experience working directly with clients and other Defenders forever changed how I will practice law. As someone pursuing a career in civil rights impact litigation, I have been forced to reckon with some of the concerns about how the field operates. One of the most salient critiques is that in the process of using a client’s case to pursue legal reform, the client and their needs become lost as they are turned from a person into a vehicle to help shape the law. The case ceases to be about their individual human needs and story, replaced by the needs and story of the broader “client”—the community fighting for change. The forcefulness of this critique will differ from organization to organization based on their practices, but nonetheless, it is still a concern that impact litigators must reckon with—and hopefully a trap that they avoid.

Doing direct services work with Defenders has helped me reconcile with this contradiction. I refuse to believe that for the greater good of “humanity” in the aggregate, the needs of the individual client—that human asking you for help—must be sacrificed. I cannot and will not give into this false dichotomy. When I begin my career as an impact litigator, that ethos is exactly what I will be looking for during my post-clerkship job hunt. In other words, I want to spend my career working on a team comprised of those with the beating heart of a Defender.

Filed in: Clinical Student Voices

Tags: Class of 2024, Harvard Defenders

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