Claire Hagan '13L: Shepherd Alliance Internship
Georgia Justice Project
Claire Hagan '13L
Hometown: Pittsburgh, PA
Agency: Georgia Justice Project in Atlanta, Ga.
What did you enjoy most about the internship?I loved being able to do real legal work, like writing and filing court papers.
What was the greatest challenge? Learning a lot of criminal procedure and evidence law on the fly was a bit daunting, especially when a client's liberty was at stake.
What was the greatest lesson you learned through your experience? You don't need the law on your side to ask the court for something. You can't demand something unless you have the law, but you can always ask and make an argument.
How might the internship affect your career path? My time at the Georgia Justice Project taught me the importance of doing excellent legal work is, whether you're working for a big firm or an impoverished criminal defendant.
I'm not sure exactly what I expected when I started my summer at the Georgia Justice Project (GJP) in Atlanta. GJP is a private, not-for-profit law firm that provides legal representation and social work services to people who have been accused of crimes. GJP's structure is unique. By not accepting court-appointed clients and by operating solely on private donations, the agency completely controls which clients--and how many clients--it will accept. The staff at GJP conducts a rigorous intake process designed to select clients who are committed to improving their lives. In turn, GJP commits itself to providing free legal and social work services for as long as the clients need them. Under this long-term and comprehensive model of service, GJP stands with its clients both inside and outside the courtroom, and well after (often years after) their cases conclude.
As an intern in GJP's criminal defense department, I took away two main lessons about what sets GJP apart. First, it believes that each client is capable of improving his or her life. Regardless of whether a particular client is found guilty or innocent, or what he or she may have done in the past, the lawyers and social workers at GJP see a brighter future. This future usually includes employment, meaningful relationships, avoiding legal trouble and sobriety. Clients in turn are expected to achieve their goals. This mindset--that each client possesses enormous potential--is demanding and empowering. By accepting GJP's services, each client contracts to work toward his or her goals. In turn, GJP contracts to support the client throughout the process. Data on client outcomes highlight how effective GJP's approach has been in improving clients' futures: the recidivism rate for GJP clients is 17%, less than one-third of the national average.
Second, GJP provides outstanding legal services. I came to recognize the quality of GJP's legal work by observing many GJP lawyers in action in a variety of court proceedings. GJP's attorneys work vigorously throughout each case. By keeping a low caseload, GJP ensures that each client's case receives every ounce of the attention it warrants. This summer I was also struck by how effectively GJP's attorneys argued for what was right on a certain issue. I repeatedly watched my supervising attorney argue for a court to reduce a client's bond, or to re-sentence a client because of factors like the client's personal characteristics--not because of some sterile legal principle. And my attorney won each of these motions.
The quality of GJP's legal services is evident in their results. In recent years, fewer than 7% of GJP's clients were sentenced to further confinement. Nationally, the incarceration rate is over 50%. GJP's dedication to legal excellence underscores its commitment to each client and respect for his or her inherent worth.
In a sense, GJP's approach to legal representation reflects its location. GJP's building in Atlanta sits directly behind Martin Luther King Jr.'s tomb. King was born half a block away, and was the pastor at a church down the street. I spent a lot of time this summer listening to his sermons and speeches, and found an astounding parallel between GJP's work and King's message. Like King, GJP emphasizes a life dedicated to serving others while striving for professional excellence.
To close, I borrow King's words, given in one of his last sermons, delivered right down the street. They sum up the lessons I take from GJP. "If you want to be important--wonderful! If you want to be recognized--wonderful! If you want to be great--wonderful! But recognize that he who is greatest among you shall be a servant."