On Wednesday, October 22, 2014, Harvard Defenders celebrated its 65th anniversary at its annual Litman Fellowship Symposium, with presentations by keynote speaker Debo Adegbile and Litman Fellows Carson Wheet, Aaron Fields, and Missy Bücher. The event was sponsored by The Harvard Law School Milbank Tweed Fund and the Office of Clinical and Pro Bono Programs.
Mr. Adegbile, an acclaimed civil rights lawyer, spoke of a reality that has driven students in Defenders for more than half a century: “Lawyers make a difference, and the absence of lawyers makes a difference too.”
When Harvard Defenders opened its doors in October 1949, it was a relatively small endeavor. Comprised of only ten 3L students dedicated to providing zealous representation of indigent criminal defendants, it was a full year before the organization was granted official recognition by Harvard Law School. The fledgling organization was then given a $500 budget and a home in Gannett House, which allowed the organization to take up to 20 3L applicants the following year.
A great deal has changed in 65 years. The organization has grown to include more than 80 students from all three years of law school, as well as LLMs. Harvard Defenders now focuses exclusively on criminal show cause hearings, which are hearings to determine whether there is probable cause to issue a criminal charge. Working under the supervision of attorney John Salsberg, students prepare their cases by interviewing clients and witnesses, preparing factual and legal research, and orally presenting their cases to clerk magistrates in criminal courts. Last year, Defenders represented clients in more than 145 show cause hearings in 20 courts.
At the 65th celebration, Mr. Adegbile spoke of the commitment to and belief in criminal justice that drives many lawyers who work in criminal defense. “Criminal justice is the mark of a democracy,” said Mr Adegbile. “It’s actually definitional.” Responding to the allegation that defense lawyers lacked compassion, Mr. Adegbile insisted that criminal defense lawyers must have a very strong connection with humanity. “It’s not that absence of humanity, but an embrace of humanity that allows you to step into that breach.”
An acclaimed civil rights attorney, Mr. Adegbile worked for the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund for ten years and has argued before the Supreme Court on the Voting Rights Act. He was a nominee to lead the U.S. Department of Justice and Civil Rights Division and is now a partner at the law firm of Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr LLP. Mr. Adegbile spoke of some of the challenges he has faced in his career, including the Senate block of his confirmation due to his representation of a death row inmate. “In your career, there are a lot of things you can’t control,” said Mr. Adegbile. “You can control the principles for which you stand.”
This year’s Litman Fellows —Missy Bücher, Aaron Fields, and Carson Wheet — also presented at the Sympoisum. The Litman Fellowship was established in 2012 and is dedicated to the memory of Jack T. Litman, HLS LL.B. ’67, a renowned New York criminal defense attorney who was a member of Harvard Defenders during his time at the law school. The Fellowship supports three law school students as they work as Harvard Defenders during the summer. The Litman Fellowship offers Fellows the opportunity to gain practical experience in client interaction, legal research and oral advocacy, and they have the unique opportunity to handle all their own cases.
At the Symposium, the Litman Fellows presented academic research on a legal issue they encountered during their fellowship. Mr. Fields, HLS ’16, discussed the challenges of advocating for juvenile clients, and Ms. Bücher, a 3L at Tulane Law, presented her research on international insights into plea-bargaining. Mr. Wheets, HLS ’16, shared best-practices for clients suffering from addictions based on his experience this summer.
“It was truly inspirational to be in a room full of people who have dedicated their lives to defending the principles that they believe in,” said Mr. Wheet. “Sharing the stage with Debo Adegbile, Benjamin Litman and the other Litman Fellows will always be one of my proudest moments at Harvard Law.”