Around this time last year, I was preparing with nine other students to spend the semester shuttling back and forth between Montgomery, Alabama, and New York City. I was a member of the Equal Justice and Capital Defender Clinic, one of the many clinics offered at the law school but the only one that requires you to drop everything in order to participate in it.
The EJCDC is a 14-credit (16 if you count the prerequisite Eighth Amendment course) commitment that is as consuming as it is fascinating, and as challenging as it is fulfilling. In a nutshell, students provide legal assistance to prisoners on Alabama’s death row by helping prepare appellate briefs for collateral litigation. Conducting client interviews, researching sociological and historical issues, drafting memos and briefs, and engaging in seminar-style discussions about the progress of our cases are all part of the deal.
So how did I wind up in a situation where I was living in the Deep South and immersing myself in work that I hadn’t had much exposure to before law school?
I got lucky.
I was visiting NYU during Admitted Students Weekend back in 2009 and was fortunate enough to run into a faculty member who strongly recommended me to go to Professor Bryan Stevenson‘s speaking event. I went, not knowing who he was or what he did. I left the room convinced not only that I had to attend NYU Law and one day do this clinic, but that the experience would fundamentally change the way I looked at the world.
It turned out that Professor Stevenson was the founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative, a non-profit organization that represents indigent defendants and prisoners who have been denied fair treatment in the legal system. While its mission early on focused on capital punishment, it has since expanded its reach to include juveniles and other indigent defendants. Prior to law school, this area of society wasn’t something I knew much about. But the conviction behind Professor Stevenson’s words (go on YouTube and look up some of his remarks if you haven’t done so already) and the moral underpinnings of EJI (that each of us is worth more than the worst acts we’ve ever committed) were as powerful as anything I’d witnessed in my life.
So yeah, all told, it wasn’t a hard decision. I happily committed a semester’s worth of credits to the clinic. I happily prepped my stomach for a diet heavy on fried food and light on anything lite. And, of course, I happily delved into all the work necessary to properly do my part in the post-conviction representation of a condemned death row inmate.
And I wish the very best for the group of students going down this year.