By Zohar Freeman ’24

“Ask your client.” This was the advice my supervising attorney, Lia Monahon, gave at our first team meeting for the Criminal Justice Institute. “When you aren’t sure about something, ask your client.” That advice has stayed with me. 

At CJI, we were in court most weeks, representing clients in criminal cases from arraignment to trial. I had already worked with one of my clients before starting CJI. I represented her through the student practice organization Harvard Defenders. When her case proceeded to arraignment, I was able to continue my representation through CJI. As I have become more involved in her criminal matters, I have had the opportunity to represent her in various criminal and civil proceedings.  

Through CJI, I have gotten the opportunity to be a part of my clients’ lives – both their setbacks and their successes. That has been one of the great joys of CJI for me: being able to celebrate the good in our client’s lives, while supporting them through the difficulties. When one of my clients started back up in school, got a new car, or even just had a good day, I could be there to celebrate. And when court was overwhelming, or life got too stressful, I could be there to shoulder some of the burden. 

And that support went both ways. Midway through the semester, I had to take the New York Law Exam. My client found out and called me a few weeks later to ask how it went. When I told her I passed, she screamed so loud that I had to hold my phone away from my ear. “I knew you’d do it!” 

At CJI, we see a lot of what is wrong with the criminal legal system. It is easy to be outraged in criminal court. Court personnel call our clients “bodies”. Bail is often set too high to afford, or not set at all. At times, racism feels palpable in the courtroom. It is our job to reckon with that injustice. 

But, I have also found that CJI is a community that loves to celebrate the good. The whiteboard in the office is full of messages of support, annotated with silly cartoons and small jokes from the students. And, because the CJI community is not just students, dotted alongside these messages are depictions of Spiderman and the Easter Bunny – the latest contributions from client’s children after a visit where we spent hours trading snacks and markers. Sharing joy and art is an antidote to the distressing circumstances we face with our clients. Before the kids left, they asked us, “Can we come back tomorrow?” 

Starting at CJI, I was afraid that my learning would come at the expense of my clients. But that could not be further from the truth. In fact, I was often surprised by just how much our clients trusted us, both with their cases and with the other aspects of their personal lives that they shared with us. At CJI, I felt so lucky to benefit from my clients’ trust, even as I was still learning how to be a public defender. And I was surprised that, the more honest I was with clients about what I didn’t know, the more trust I received in return. Our clients trusted us, not despite the fact that we were student attorneys, but because they knew we were still learning – from our clients and from each other. 

Since starting at CJI, I have played my part in both wins and losses. Regardless of the outcome, it is a great privilege and grave responsibility to represent someone who did not choose you. I feel very fortunate to have gotten that experience alongside the amazing clients, attorneys, and students in the CJI community. 

Filed in: Clinical Student Voices

Tags: Class of 2024, Criminal Justice Institute

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