by The Record
via The Harvard Law Record
As a seasoned public defender and an expert in her field, we asked Clinical Professor of Law Dehlia Umunna if she could share her wisdom and experience with us as as both a professor as the Faculty Deputy Director of HLS’s Criminal Justice Institute (CJI).
Interview conducted and condensed by The Record President Robert Mahari.
Q. Could you shed some light on your path to HLS?
A. My career started at one the best places to work, the Public Defender Service in DC, where I first interned as a law school student and then worked as a staff attorney. Initially, I was working on all sorts of trials, representing hundreds of people. I started in the juvenile section doing trials, including murder trials, and then quickly moved on to the misdemeanor and felony section. After seven years, I left to go teach at American University’s Washington College of Law. I returned to PDS as a Felony One lawyer, working on rape and murder cases that captured national attention.
When I came to HLS, I really came because I needed to get a reprieve from the hard trial work I had been doing in DC. I came with the intention of just staying for two years as a clinical instructor. I arrived on December 3, 2007, and I’m still here.
I stayed because I love the work. And I give people this advice: The minute you stop loving what you do, quit. Literally, find something else! I wake up every morning and ask myself, do I still enjoy representing the downtrodden? Yes! Do I still enjoy teaching Harvard Law students to become fellow compassionate client-centered advocates? Yes! I’m a person of faith. I’m a Christian woman and one of my guiding principles is found in Proverbs 31:8-9, which tell us to “Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute.” As long as I find myself guided by these principles every day, I will stay.
I also love the clinical work. I love CJI. I enjoy working with students. It’s been one of the biggest blessings of my life to watch the awesome transformation students go through. They come in as idealists and leave as realists with a skill set to make a difference in the world.
Q. As students transition from idealists to realists, how should they avoid becoming jaded?
A. It’s so easy to become jaded. You meet people who are classified as defendants, but have experienced some horrible, horrible things themselves, which frankly, no human being ought to. Then you layer that with the racism that’s embedded structurally in the criminal justice system where black and brown people’s lives are viewed as disposable, dispensable and expendable. I see it all the time in courts. I see it in the way my clients are treated.
The students in my clinic will tell you that when they’re in court and they’re representing individuals, the frustration is intense. I’ve lived in Roxbury for 13 years, and I’ve walked to court and seen police officers harassing my clients, my juvenile clients. What keeps me going – and what keeps a lot of students going – is that we are making a difference. The system needs agitators and people who care about the work, who have real compassion and real empathy, and who will not stand by and watch injustice permeate the system.
Martin Luther King said, “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.” It is easy to become pessimistic and jaded and indifferent. But I don’t think that we can afford to. I don’t think that we can afford to become complicit in this fight to reform the criminal justice system. As long as we keep hearing about the Ahmaud Arberys, the George Floyds and the Breonna Taylors of the world, we do not have the luxury to be jaded.
Q. How can students discover if they really have a passion for criminal justice work?
A. There are categories of people. Some people come to law school knowing this is all they want to do. Others discover what they want to do in law school. I had a student eight years ago, who is now a supervisor in one of the public defender offices in New York. He had no idea what he wanted to do until he took CJI and ended up trying a case. By the end he felt, “I can’t work in a law firm. I will not be happy there. This is what I want to do.” I always joke with him, because I remember at graduation, he asked me, “Don’t tell my parents that I’m turning down a law firm job to go work for a public defender office.”
The truth is, there are financial constraints. Particularly for minority students, and really any students who don’t come from wealth. It is okay if you evaluate all of your options and you land on the fact that you need to go somewhere else where you can make money. I’ve changed my thinking on this. I used to think, “There’s more to life than money.” In my opinion, there is, but students need to get to the point where they understand that for themselves. I’ve been out of law school for two decades and I still have law school loans, but that’s because I was a very poor public defender for the longest of times. I am choosing, even right now, to remain in this space with law school loans and all, because the work I am doing is so much bigger than me.
Some students tell me they will work at a firm to pay off their loans, and then come back to do this work. I’ve been doing this for a long time, and I can count on one hand the folks who have done that. You become entangled in a certain lifestyle and you get used to the money. You forget the reasons that kept you motivated in the first place.
Q. What advice do you have for students as they enter HLS?
A. A lot of students spend their time building a resume. They intern at public defender offices. They intern at nonprofit organizations. There’s nothing wrong with that, but I would advise them to invest time and energy into building a better you, building a well of empathy.
What I mean by that is do a lot of volunteering, not just internships. Volunteer at shelters. Volunteer at a children’s hospitals. Those experiences will give you an appreciation for the demographic that’s usually impacted by the criminal justice system. It builds your empathy well. It increases your capacity for compassion. It allows you to not be indifferent and it gives you a perspective that is unlike any other. I would advise students to appreciate the humanity of people by really being of service.
Take classes that mean something. For the past two Winter terms, I co-taught with three incredibly brilliant, generous, and like-minded teachers: Professors Caramello, Gregory, and Giannini. It is truly an honor to teach alongside these remarkable individuals. The student response to this class has been overwhelming. Our course focuses on teaching our students to develop a mental model for conceptualizing different approaches to lawyering for justice in the United States, including values, mission definition, problem identification, mapping of stakeholders and system actors, analysis of complexity, remedy design, differentiation between strategic and tactical decision-making, and rigorous reflection and evaluation. Additionally, our creative curriculum empowered our first-year students to develop an approach to lawyering that balanced systemic thinking with an intense curiosity about and familiarity with individual human beings and communities’ lived experiences. For my part, I focused the class on recognizing the humanity of a defendant criminally charged in the system, and how the dehumanization and degradation of the defendant are central to many decisions legal actors make within the Criminal Justice system. Many students have expressed to us that “this class is why I came to law school.”
I urge you to seek out professors who will challenge you, hold you accountable, mentor you and push you. Professors who think of themselves not only as your teacher, but someone with a responsibility to mentor.
Don’t forget who you were before law school. It’s easy because law school is competitive, and there’s nothing wrong with that. You were human before you came to law school and you cared about certain things. You cared about certain people. When you’re here, if you used to talk to your mom once a week, keep doing that. If you used to go to church or the synagogue when you were not in law school, why stop doing that? There are reasons, hopefully, that brought you to law school. You want to save the world. You want to make it a better place. Don’t let go of that because you have torts or contracts.
Take time to grieve and be intentional about your selfcare. Tragically, when people of color or black men are killed, students say, “I don’t have time to grieve”. In the hustle and bustle of all that you’re doing in law school, just take time for yourself. Take time to pause and say, “Okay, let me step away from the energy of what I’m working on”, and maybe go for a walk, maybe call friends and check in.
Q. You’ve given advice to many students. Is there anything you would like to share but aren’t asked about enough?
A. I think people tend to undervalue their difference. People are always asking me questions about how to conform. I wish people would ask me questions about how to harness what sets them apart for good. I’m an immigrant. I came to the US 28 years ago, landed in California in the middle of the Rodney King riots. My father is Nigerian, my mother is from Sierra Leone, and I was born in England. I am a Christian, a mother, a nature lover. I try to think of things I can give to the world that nobody else can. It’s boring when everybody is the same.
I think people avoid hard questions. I think people avoid controversial questions. It’s okay to ask questions that will make you uncomfortable. It’s okay for somebody who says they’re pro-life to have conversations with somebody who’s pro-choice. We all don’t have to think like sheep.
Harvard Law School is a very unique place and people will be successful no matter what they do. You should strive to be successful academically: Study, go to the library, do research, get on reviews. But strive to leave as a better person because the world will be a better place if we are better people than we are lawyers.