GIVING BACK: Volunteering at the Anchorage Public Defender Agency

Vol. 30 No. 6

By

Dougal Neralich (neralich@seattleu.edu) is a third-year student at the Seattle University School of Law. This article originally appeared online in conjunction with the Summer Grant Program offered by the school’s Public Interest Law Foundation (PILF). To learn more about PILF and its Summer Grant Program, visit tinyurl.com/kqhqm9x; to read the journals of other program participants, visit tinyurl.com/n3oswjn.

This issue’s “Giving Back” column presents the first of several journal entries by Seattle University School of Law students who received grants to undertake public interest work over the summer. As part of this program, offered through the school’s Public Interest Law Foundation, the students kept journals documenting their experiences as interns. We hope their journal entries will provide real-world insights into what it means to do public interest work and will offer you additional ideas for your own pro bono efforts—whether you are a student or an established lawyer. We start with the journal of Dougal Neralich, who interned at the Public Defender Agency in Anchorage, Alaska.

July 1, 2013

As I sit down to write this journal entry, I am amazed that I have been at my internship for over a month and that so much time has passed. I work with three accomplished and driven interns, all of whom love what they are doing as much as I do, and we are supervised and aided not only by our point person but by every single attorney in our office, each of whom takes time out of the hectic day to make sure we have everything that we need.

I began my adventure in late May and was immediately thrown a curve ball: I learned that I was to be the only intern doing jail court, in-custody and out of custody bail hearings, changes of plea, and operating without a license (OWL) court, and I was going to start doing it on day one.

Jail court is a unique place. Anchorage public defenders (and I imagine this is ubiquitous across all jurisdictions) are given a mountain of files every morning before they venture to the jail where prisoners are taken from their cells and brought to a large room that is half pristine courtroom and half concrete box with guards and uncomfortable-looking benches. Several layers of plexiglass are all that divide this split room, but the difference is night and day.

On my first day I followed my supervisor to the back of the concrete portion of the room, the side where everyone is wearing matching jumpsuits and handcuffs, into a dark hallway with interview windows and a guard station. I watched as the attorney picked up the first file, called the name, waited as one of the inmates shuffled up to the window, and then reviewed the file (for the first time, in the presence of the detainee), broke down the accused’s rights, summed up what was about to happen once the detainee’s name was called by the judge, and asked if there were any questions. The attorney then placed the file face down, simultaneously reaching for the next folder.

The next thing I knew, I was trotting along behind my supervisor once again, this time into the courtroom. He placed the mountain of files on the desk, waited for it to be his turn, walked to the podium, and began to argue bail reduction expertly with the state representative, seamlessly articulating all the arguments that I had reviewed in my mind seemingly moments before but in such a way that I found myself entranced. In no time the mountain was reduced to a molehill, and then it was gone—some losses, some wins, and we were walking away from the jail. I was awestruck. My reverie lasted until we reached the car where my supervisor turned to me and asked, “Did you like that?” I nodded my head enthusiastically. He responded with a smile, “Good, because tomorrow you’re doing it.”

That was over a month ago. I was thrust into the Anchorage District Court judicial system after less than 24 hours of experience, and I have never looked back. I have had wonderful coaching and encouragement. When I have erred, it has been discussed with me at length in a manner that was fair and never accusatory. I have learned as much in this last month as I did in two years of law school, and each day I finish my work a wiser and better advocate. I have seen people from every walk of life and all manner of backgrounds come through the courthouse doors and, amazingly, I have seen overworked public defenders and assistant district attorneys work together to deliver even-handed arguments about each individual case to find a fair resolution. On the micro level, at least in Anchorage, justice is working.

I am honored to be associated with such outstanding professionals. And I cannot wait to see what might happen tomorrow.

August 12, 2013

As I wind down my summer in Anchorage, I take pause to reflect on what I have gained from my experiences, and where I go from here.

I was lucky enough to spend my summer working as an intern for the criminal division of the Public Defender Agency in Anchorage. I can unequivocally say that this is what I want to do. I want to be a public defender. I find comfort in writing that, but the real question is why.

I began my summer by being cast into the daily madness of what is affectionately referred to by public defenders as “jail court,” a fast-paced, multi-client daily effort to release people from short-term incarceration. I quickly realized that school and practice are very different things, but that when legal argument was necessary, it was there—my schooling had stuck. Over the summer as my duties increased, so did my skill. I became able to form complex and persuading legal arguments within the bounds of the law, and learned how to conduct myself in front of angry or scared clients and serious judges. But I also learned that the law I respect so much has quite an impact outside of the books that taught it to me, very real and life-altering effects. The law applied is something to be taken extremely seriously, and I grew to respect it as more than an educational pursuit.

My goal at the outset of this summer was simply to see if I was cut out for criminal law. I can easily say that it was a modest goal, and one quickly met. I soon learned that I not only wanted to practice criminal law, but I wanted to do it as a public servant. I wanted to be a public defender.

Before law school I lived in Colorado for seven years, a state I came to love for its glorious mountains and active people. Having spent the summer in Anchorage, I realize that Alaska is like Colorado magnified to the extreme. The scale is larger and the people are amazing. Despite the size of the state, the legal community is small and tightly knit in Anchorage. Both sides of the aisle—public defenders and district attorneys—work together, with and within the law to reach what they all believe to be a just result. As an intern I was allowed to second chair two trials, trials that determined the lives and freedom of the people within them. It was an extremely serious lesson to know that what I did mattered, really mattered to someone’s future, someone who could not afford to hire someone to protect them.

In both of my trials I was allowed to argue for my clients, and in both trials I felt more nervous and excited about what I was doing than I ever had in any previous job. It wasn’t just that I did well in my trials, it was that I was making a difference that made an impact on me.

I learned a lot of practical things over this summer, but the most important thing that I learned was that I can make a difference, a big difference, every day, to people who need help. I not only want to be a public defender, but I believe that I will likely be returning to Alaska to practice, a state filled with a large population of people who need help—help I can give them.

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