Spotlight on Student Public Service & Pro Bono: Don’t Be Afraid to Change Career Paths

Every year, we honor law student pro bono with the PSJD Pro Bono Publico Award. Any 2L or 3L who attends a PSJD subscriber school and has significant pro bono contributions to underserved populations, the public interest community and legal education is eligible for nomination.

Every day this week, the 2013-14 PSJD Pro Bono Publico Award winner and honorable mentions will be guest blogging about law student pro bono and their public interest commitments. Today, we’re featuring Merit Distinction honoree and University of California, Berkeley School of Law student  Ioana Tchoukleva, a prisoners’ rights advocate and creator of the student-run Post-Conviction Advocacy Project (PCAP). 

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Read Ioana’s take on non-linear public interest career paths and how she balances her domestic and international legal work:

First year of law school, you are told that your 1L summer job matters — it will put you on the path to your dream job and somehow magically prepare you for the rest of law school. The following year, you are told that your 2L summer job basically determines where you will work after graduation, so you better choose carefully! In fact, throughout law school you feel a latent anxiety that underlies every move you make. For many, at the core of that anxiety lies a fear of not doing the right thing, of being behind in one way or another, of missing out on opportunities. This feeling of “not being good enough” runs deep and affects students in a variety of ways that reverberate way beyond law school.

Despite the institutional pressures to conform, I never managed (or wanted) to stay on one career path. In fact, I had two distinct paths and areas of interest: the first one entailed seeking remedies and lasting solutions for victims of gross human rights violations internationally, and the second one was aimed at addressing the problems of the criminal justice system domestically. One of them involved international human rights and refugee law, the other US criminal and constitutional law. In the eyes of most people — professors, parents, fellow students — those were two very separate careers paths. In order to succeed at all, I had to pick one of them, take the classes related to that field, strategically spend my summers making contacts, and eventually get a job in the field. Trying to do both was not only stupid; it was a recipe for disaster.

And yet to me, the two paths seemed deeply intertwined and somewhat complimentary. Abuses of power and privilege affect marginalized people around the world in distinct, though related ways. Discrimination might take many forms but what permeates all of them is an inability/unwillingness to empathize with a fellow human being. Effectively addressing human rights violations, both domestically and internationally, starts with listening carefully to the voices of affected populations. Whether I was working with Ugandan male survivors of sexual violence or indigent criminal defendants in Oakland, my job was to support their efforts and figure out how to best address their needs. By advocating for their rights, I could begin removing the obstacles that prevented them from fully experiencing their freedom and human dignity. The geographic focus was different, as was the substantive law, but the skills, values and commitment to serving others made the two paths overlap, at least in my life journey.

Thus, throughout my three years of law school, I managed to balance my domestic social justice work with a commitment to fighting injustice abroad. To do so, I delved deeply into whichever area I seemed most needed at the time. During my 1L year, the Occupy movement galvanized thousands of people to think critically about issues of economic inequality. I decided to support their efforts by becoming a legal observer for the National Lawyers Guild. As a result, I spent many nights getting tear gassed on the streets of Oakland, trying to document police brutality and protect the rights of free speech and peaceful assembly. The summer of my first year, I interned for a few NLG attorneys who taught me how to be a “movement lawyer,” defending activists on the streets and in the courtrooms.

My second year of law school, I switched course and rekindled my pre-law school passion for international human rights. I joined the International Human Rights Law Clinic at Berkeley Law and worked tirelessly on a project seeking accountability for conflict-related sexual violence against men in Uganda. My team produced a report that we presented at a conference in Kampala, where we collaborated with local attorneys, activists, and survivors. In the same year, I started a legal project, called the International Human Rights Workshop, that trained law students to do comparative legal research of sexual violence laws. Our research provided the Liberian Law Reform Commission with the information they needed to decide how best to revise their own laws.

Still I never abandoned my interest in criminal justice reform. Having attended restorative justice sessions with lifers in San Quentin for months, I learned about the inadequacies of the current parole system. Men who had spend decades behind bars, who are currently old and clearly pose no threat to society, are continuously denied parole because the attorneys who are appointed to represent them fail to provide them with adequate parole representation. To begin addressing this issue, I co-founded another legal project called the Post-Conviction Advocacy Project (P-CAP). P-CAP trains students to prepare lifers for their parole hearings and help represent them at those hearings. In just one year, P-CAP students, working under the supervision of Keith Wattley, helped five lifers obtain parole.

Now as I get ready to graduate, I am convinced more than ever that some of us are just not meant to have linear career paths. Even though I was well positioned to pursue a career in public international law, I found myself falling in love with indigent criminal defense work here in Oakland. I do not regret any of the classes I took or the projects I started, although few of them gave me the knowledge I need to be a public defender. So if you too find the idea of planning who you will be in five years completely ridiculous, then don’t! Follow what feels right at the moment and you will always be doing what you love, even if what you love changes over time. The less attached you are to your plans for the future, the more space you give yourself to learn, grow, and adapt to the needs of the present.  So relax into the uncertainty, let the unfolding of your identity take its course, and enjoy the ride.

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