By Stephanie Schuyler, J.D. ’17
If I had to give one piece of advice to incoming 1Ls at Harvard Law School, I would tell them to join a student practice organization (SPO) as soon as humanly possible. Speaking for myself, I can safely say that Harvard Defenders kept me sane during my 1L year. I have been immensely lucky, because my experience as a Defender has allowed me to connect with and learn from local communities and to use my immense privilege as a law school student to center their stories at the outset of the criminal process.
Many SPOs here at HLS can provide students with hands-on experience. But what drew me to Defenders was the possibility of centering and lifting the narratives of our clients, who might otherwise be processed by the criminal justice system without anyone hearing or caring about their stories. Harvard Defenders have the potential to make a real difference in the outcomes our clients face. We provide representation to accused individuals at “probable cause hearings,” which are the entry point for many individuals into the criminal justice system. During these hearings, because no criminal process has begun, individuals are not entitled to a court-appointed attorney, and the Defenders are the only organization in the Commonwealth that provides free representation to help clients avoid entanglement with the system of mass incarceration.
Working as a Harvard Defender for the last three years has taught me so much. When I first started taking cases as a Defender, I was certain I would win the day with my fancy legal arguments about statutory language and mens rea. I quickly learned that my role in the process was as much about communicating my client’s story to the magistrate as it was about arguing the law. When we—as advocates—center our clients in the adjudicative process, magistrates often listen, and our clients get the day in court they deserve and avoid the unnecessarily harsh penalty of an undeserved criminal conviction.
In the last two years, I’ve also had the chance to put the lessons I’ve learned to good use. I’ve trained and mentored new Defenders, as both a Training Director and small team leader. I’ve done my best to share some of the things I’ve learned, lessons which have made me a better listener and advocate, and which have helped me not to lose sight of the reasons I came to law school in the first place.