Stephanie Perez ‘23 is the recipient of the 2023 Ralph D. Gants Access to Justice Award. She is honored for her steadfast devotion to protecting the most vulnerable in society while addressing systemic injustice. As a student leader in the Harvard Prison Legal Assistance Project (PLAP), Perez spent hundreds of pro bono hours fighting for the rights of the incarcerated, and she participated in four clinics that display a dedication to understanding how the law can be used to serve others.
The Ralph D. Gants Access to Justice Award was established in 2021 to honor the late Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice and revered advocate for social justice, Ralph D. Gants ‘80. The award recognizes a student who is dedicated to advancing access to justice and racial equity and has demonstrated leadership in helping to eliminate systemic barriers to justice.
“I am so honored to be receiving this award,” says Perez. “My clinical experiences have been my favorite and most rewarding parts of my law school experience. I came to law school to learn how to be a lawyer, and my clinical experiences have taught me just that. When you take a case, you never know how it’s going to turn out, what challenges you are going to face along the way. But with every unpredictable twist and turn that my clients and cases took me on, I learned something new about what it takes to be a lawyer: how to create trusting relationships with clients despite difficult circumstances, how to use the law to your clients’ advantage, how to think on your feet when a hearing goes in ways you did not expect.”
At the beginning of her 1L year, Perez immediately dove headfirst into PLAP. During a remote year, Perez did not hesitate to take on disciplinary matters despite the challenges of remote client meetings and hearings. Returning to campus as a 2L, Perez stepped up to become a Training Director, a critical leadership position to ease the transition to in-person work while mentoring new PLAP students. All the while, her work on tough cases continued.
Perez remembers the first time she visited a client in prison—the case was an effort to stop a client eligible for maximum security prison from being placed there. It was her first time working on that type of hearing, her first time in a Massachusetts prison, even her first time driving a car in over a year. “I was terrified,” she says. “And yet that fear, that hesitation, that’s what made me realize that I was doing exactly what I needed to be doing. Some of the best advocacy I’ve done for my clients, I’ve done it with my voice shaking because fighting against the system is scary. If it were easy, everyone who needed representation would have it.”
“Stephanie seeks out the most challenging cases—those with the most severe allegations and potential sanctions, with complicated or unfavorable factual records, and with clients who are reviled by [prison] staff—and she gets down to work,” says Joel Thompson, clinical instructor and managing attorney of PLAP. He lauds her willingness to go above and beyond for PLAP’s clients; whenever their call comes, Perez always answers.
This year, Perez represented an imprisoned client placed on mental health watch at the same time that Massachusetts enacted a new law enabling prisoners to petition a court directly for transfer to a state hospital. Perez jumped into the unprecedented territory, with no road map to follow, and filed the first ever petition under this new law. Assigned a hearing for the day after Thanksgiving, she spent her break working diligently to prepare for her first argument in court. “Now, we’re doing the appeal,” she says. “I had the opportunity to draft the appellate brief, and I’m just so grateful and proud to have been able to see this important case through so many stages.”
“PLAP especially has been such an instrumental part of my law school journey,” Perez reflects. “It has truly been the honor of a lifetime being able to represent so many incarcerated clients, even when many times all I could be was in my client’s corner and let them know that they were not alone. I’ve come to learn the importance of speaking truth to power, the importance of helping my clients resist the system for the sake of resisting in the hopes that one day, if enough people resist, we might see some change for the better.”
While a student at HLS, Perez also completed several clinics: the Institute to End Mass Incarceration Clinic, the Government Lawyer: U.S. Attorney Clinic, the Veterans Law and Disability Benefits Clinic, and the Criminal Justice Insitute.
“Stephanie was an extremely passionate and dedicated clinic student who made a real difference for her clients,” says Daniel Nagin, clinical professor of law and faculty director of the WilmerHale Legal Services Center. “She approached her client obligations and access to justice with the utmost commitment.”
In the spirit of Justice Gants, Perez has shown a commitment to bringing justice to those the legal system has overlooked. She is eager to fight the uphill battle rather than take the easy way out, whether that means being the first to interpret a new law or being an encouraging voice for clients dealing with mental health issues.
“Stephanie wants to give voice to the unpopular, and she is not afraid to call out hypocrisy where she sees it,” says Thompson. “She thinks constantly about how to advance the aims of our clients. She is resilient in the face of adversity, whether she is cross-examining officers over the telephone, standing by clients who are hated by prison staff, or taking questions from a judge on a holiday weekend about how to interpret a new law. Her body of work is exceptional and represents the best of what students can do to further access to justice, racial equity, and criminal justice reform.”
Upon her commencement, Perez will be working as an associate at O’Melveny & Myers in Washington, D.C. In 2025, she will return home to Miami, Florida to complete a judicial clerkship in the Southern District of Florida.
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