by Jenn Lambert J.D. ’21
Working with the Criminal Justice Institute (CJI) was the highlight of my 3L year. As a primary matter, CJI work is amazing because we get to work with clients. I was drawn to CJI because of my love for working with and helping people. It’s the same reason that I became interested in the legal profession. While working directly with people can be challenging—like when you get a call from a client whose GPS monitor won’t charge and is afraid of having their release violated— it is also, in my opinion, the most rewarding work a lawyer can do. Getting that experience in law school and being able to build client relationship skills was not only critical for me but also deeply personally fulfilling.
I came to law school hoping to become a criminal public defender but unsure if I would be any good at public defense work. Despite other clinical and summer experiences, CJI gave me the first meaningful opportunity to speak in court on behalf of clients, which was the part of direct service work that scared me the most. I remember sitting in front of my laptop—I appeared virtually throughout my time with CJI—before arguing substantive motions for the first time, and my hand was shaking. However, I knew that I was well prepared. I had practiced my argument many times with my supervisor and we had role played how the argument might go in front of different judges (i.e. a quiet judge, a terse judge, an interrupting judge). When the case was called, I was ready to argue the motions and I was able to respond to questions that we hadn’t mooted because I was well prepared and confident in my arguments and understanding of the issue.
That said, we unfortunately didn’t win the motions. Still, I think that’s one of the other things that CJI helped me learn: not just how to accept losses but how to stay focused on the big picture. Ultimately, the motions I litigated that day were not what the case turned on, and I remember explaining to my client that, while we opposed the Commonwealth’s motions, this was not the be-all and end-all. In fact, as a result of those motions being granted, the Commonwealth ended up uncovering information that was helpful to my client’s case and that we hope to use if the Commonwealth goes forward with the currently scheduled trial . As cliché as it sounds, my CJI work helped me get better at not sweating the small stuff. A combative email from an assistant district attorney didn’t matter much when thinking about the case as a whole and the strength of our defense. My CJI training has been invaluable. Leaving CJI, I feel confident that I could walk into court tomorrow and take on a case myself. That is everything.