By Kathryn Yukevich, J.D. ’17
The criminal justice system is a violent, harsh, and unjust system. In courts across the country, including many courts in the Boston area, people are caught in the system, turned into a number, and fined money that they cannot pay. In too many situations, people are permanently branded by the state as the worst thing that they have ever done.
In my year with the Criminal Justice Institute, I have seen that the people who work within the criminal justice system have the power to make the system less harsh and less unfeeling. The judges who see your client as a person, the prosecutors who are candid with you, the court clerks who make sure you have the copies you need before an argument, all make the system a little less violent.
But I did not come to Harvard Law School to make the criminal justice system just a little less violent. I came to challenge the foundations of the system and to learn how to fight on behalf of clients who have been marginalized, silenced, and abused. And that’s what I have learned how to do this year from the amazing professors, instructors, and staff at the Criminal Justice Institute. I have been privileged to learn from fierce lawyers who have dedicated their lives to protecting people’s rights that are often ignored in the name of efficiency and expediency.
CJI gives students the opportunity to take full ownership of cases from beginning to end. I started with all but one of my clients at the arraignment stage, which is the client’s first interaction with the criminal justice system in a particular case. I am certain that I will be able to finish out the cases either at trial or through some other resolution. Students take all kinds of cases in the clinic from DUI cases to drug cases to gun crimes, but most of the cases on my docket were domestic violence and abuse prevention order cases.
One of the best things about CJI is how light your caseloads are. Public defenders in the Boston area can have anywhere from 40 to 100 cases on their plate at any given time. I had 5 clients, which is the maximum students will take with CJI. This caseload gave me plenty of time to build a strong relationship with my clients, make sure my cases were thoroughly investigated, and present creative legal arguments to the court on behalf of my clients.
Professor Umunna and the clinical instructors have created a client-centered culture in the CJI office. Our client’s story is always central to our defense strategy. What our clients want and what our clients need is always the first question that we ask before making a decision about what to do in a case. I’ve been incredibly fortunate to work with clients and communities who have been incredibly gracious and kind, especially considering my inexperience as a student attorney.
I thought coming into CJI that my success would be determined by the number of novel legal arguments I could make about elements of a charge or whether I had a Perry Mason moment with a witness on the stand. I could not have been more wrong. Success at CJI really depends on your ability to communicate and build relationships with people. CJI has helped me become a clearer, more focused communicator. District Court is a busy place, so motions, oral arguments, and off-the-record communications have to be concise and to the point. My clinical instructor, Jennifer McKinnon, has taught me how to make sure that every communication I have with the court or other interested parties is strategic and focused. I have learned how to explain what is going on in a case to a client clearly and realistically.
I have been incredibly fortunate to be a member of the CJI community. The other students in the office are always there to bounce ideas off of, to commiserate when things go badly, and to celebrate when things go right. Professor Umunna and Jennifer McKinnon are inspirational and fierce lawyers. They have taught me the kind of lawyer that I want to be. And my clients have taught me over and over again what strength, optimism, and compassion looks like, particularly in the face of the violence of the criminal justice system. I will be incredibly sad to leave CJI at the end of May, but I know that I will carry the lessons of the clinic with me for the rest of my career.