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The best decision I made in my first year was joining the Prison Legal Assistance Project, or PLAP. PLAP is one of the oldest student practice organizations at HLS, through which students help people incarcerated in Massachusetts with their legal needs. While “PLAP-ers” perform a wide range of functions, from research to advocacy, the part of my work I enjoyed the most was defending a client at his disciplinary hearing. Any member of PLAP can take a case, but you have a student mentor the first time around, and you always work under the supervision of an experienced attorney. That’s important, because once you take a case as a student attorney, you’re responsible for every aspect of the defense – from drafting motions, to analyzing evidence, to eventually cross-examining the Department of Corrections’ witnesses at the hearing.

I was incredibly nervous to start my first case, but it ended up being one of the highlights of my 1L experience. It taught me a lot about the aspects of litigation that you don’t get to do in the classroom. It’s hard to learn things like how to communicate with your client effectively, or how to think on your feet when something goes wrong, from a textbook. In addition, since most incarcerated people are given very limited access to legal resources, prisons are one of the places where you can do the most good as a student. Visiting and talking to my client gave me a lot of insights into the prison system which were valuable to me both as a prospective lawyer and as a person.

If you’re a student interested in social justice, or the criminal legal system, consider joining PLAP!

Sheridan Cunningham is a rising 2L from Toronto, Canada. Before attending HLS, they completed their undergraduate degree in philosophy and the University of Toronto and worked as a campaign staffer for a provincial election campaign. At HLS, Sheridan is the 1L Representative for the Canadian Law Students Association, a member of the Prison Legal Assistance Project, and a Junior Editor for the Harvard Law & Policy Review. When they have time outside of class, Sheridan enjoys cycling, writing, and political hot takes.