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Alumni Spotlight: Nicole Hall

Nneka Nnaji

Alumni Spotlight: Nicole Hall
Nicole Hall

Tell me about yourself prior to attending law school.

I am from a small town in Illinois called Belvidere. It is outside Rockford. Not a lot of people know it. I graduated with almost 500 people, and only twelve of them were minorities in my whole class. I didn't really think that I was going to go to college, but by a freak accident, I went to a basketball tryout with my best friend, and it changed. She was going to a college basketball tryout where the coach asked me if I played basketball, and I said yes. He let me play, and I ended up getting a full ride.

What made you attend law school?

After college, I got a job at the public defender’s office in Key West, Florida, and it was cool. All the attorneys were just really impressed with my work and suggested that I go to law school. So, I ended up taking the LSAT and got into the Arizona Summit Law School at 29 years old.

Can you tell us about your experience with JIOP, including the judge you interned with, your time there, and how this amazing experience opened doors for you after completing your internship?

My JIOP experience was great! I got assignments from all the judges. I was supervised by the Chief Staff Attorney for the Supreme Court of Arizona, Patience Huntwork.

Patience Huntwork is a very big part of my story and success. Throughout my internship and beyond, I have developed a great relationship with her. I can talk to her about anything. Patience gives me advice and broadens my professional network and invited me to be a part of her Inn of Court. During law school, we would frequently discuss my courses and the bar exam. One of the things I learned working with Patience and as a JIOP intern that helps me today in my practice is the ability to write motions and briefs for the court in a clear and concise manner. Writing for the court was a struggle for me. I think I would not be the writer that I am today without Patience and all her guidance, so I do have her to thank for that.  

Can you tell us about the work you did with Chinese immigrants in New Mexico?

This was under two years ago. I work for the public defender's office here in Aztec, New Mexico, and there are a lot of indigenous populations like the Navajo nation up here. What happened was that some Chinese investors and other investors started a marijuana-growing operation in the Navajo Nation. They were recruiting Chinese nationals to trim flowers, and they were paid $200 a day. Lots of people were flying here with their savings for the job but not all of them were paid.

A lot of the workers were not English speakers, and they didn't think what they were doing was wrong. They thought it was hemp and they were bringing the marijuana from the Navajo Nation into San Juan County, which is where I work. Someone called the police officers [to report] that a hotel was smelling of marijuana. When the officers arrived at the scene and knocked on the door, a Chinese national opened the door, greeted the officer, and let him in. The police officer who arrived at the scene even said that in his presence about five or six other people were still trimming the marijuana, or what they thought to be hemp. They did not think what they were doing was wrong. There were about 17 people who were arrested and charged with trafficking a controlled substance. This charge is a second-degree felony in New Mexico, and that has a maximum penalty of nine years.

What was frustrating was that because the charge was a second-degree felony, the judge put some restrictions on whether they could leave the county. A lot of the people said they weren’t from here as they just came from Asia for the job. This raised a bunch of red flags, so I spoke to my supervisor about it, and we were able to get media coverage on what was going on here. We also created a task force to cater to these people while their case was pending. My supervisor, Sarah Field, went to the state and said, “Hey, just so, you know Nicole has a whole task force, and they are ready to go public with what you're doing. We're going to give you one more chance to do the right thing.” And they did! The state started dismissing the charges, but the work did not stop there.

Recently, you were awarded the 2023 Rising Star of the New Mexico State Bar. Can you tell us what that award means to you?

It was a complete surprise because even though I had a lot of support from Patience and from a lot of my professors and colleagues, I was awarded the 2023 Rising Star alongside Roberta Cooper Ramo, who got the Henrietta Petty John Award. Being able to stand next to such an incredible person and advocate was really inspiring. I don’t know exactly how to describe it, but it’s confirming and reassuring that I am in the right place and am doing what I am supposed to be doing, which is making a difference. This award boosted my confidence and my ambition to keep going and do more.

What would you say to a student who is undecided about applying for an internship with JIOP?

They say you miss one hundred percent of the shots you don’t take, and JIOP is an opportunity that I would not want anyone to miss out on. I would say apply and give it a shot because you never know what kind of opportunities you will get.