By Rena Karefa-Johnson, J.D. ’16
In my law school applications, I wrote that I wanted to be a lawyer to continue my grandfather’s legacy of healing. While he fought to heal the suffering in his colonized, impoverished country of Sierra Leone through public health and politics, I wanted to come to law school to heal this country’s racial wounds, and the rampant inequity those wounds cause, through the law. Though I did not know it then, I was writing in part about the Criminal Justice Institute (CJI).
Working as a student attorney and defending members of the larger Boston community in criminal cases has been my most educational, meaningful and all-around best academic experience in law school. As a law student, it’s easy to lose focus on the outward-facing reason why many of us came here: to help change the world for the better. As we focus our brainpower on trying to learn and digest the theory of law, we sometimes forget that the law ultimately is not in a textbook or exam answer but rather it is a real force in the real world with an enormous impact on real lives. And we can get so caught up in thinking about our own, admittedly busy, lives – our schedules, assignments, extracurriculars and job applications – that we inadvertently deprioritize thinking about others.
But if those are some of the pitfalls of law school, then CJI is the ladder out.
There, I have used my classroom education to practice law rather than simply theorizing about it. This has deepened my understanding of how the law actually interacts with communities, specifically low-income communities of color. Not only will I take these realizations with me into my career, I also share them with my classmates and draw on them to enrich other classroom discussions.
In CJI our clients, rather than ourselves, became the priority. CJI is tremendously worthwhile for the students both for the incredible legal experience and the personal fulfillment. But the challenge of CJI is ensuring that we deserve the honor of representing our clients; that we make the experience worthwhile for them, too. It is in trying to meet that high bar – through extremely hard work and dedication, and with the guidance of the most skilled, committed and wonderful clinical faculty and staff – that I got what I came to law school for: the tools to use the law to combat and heal, rather than reinforce, racial inequality.