A Rewarding Summer at the Bronx Defenders

Michelle Cho, a YLW member in the class of 2016, writes about her summer experience at the Bronx Defenders. She shares her reflections on the tension between feminism and criminal law and the day-to-day aspects of her work. 

“Please write a memo on whether we can procedurally block the DA from making this motion in court. No longer than two pages, but I need it by 9am tomorrow because that’s when I’m conferencing with the judge. Also please look at this file and write an Order to Show Cause for this client, and a Motion to Dismiss for that one. Come with me to meet her at 5pm so you can write her affidavit. We’re going to court beforehand for arraignments and can go together afterward. And there’s a training on Public Assistance in an hour!”

So that didn’t happen all at the same time–but it wouldn’t be exaggerating to say that all of the above might be spread across, say, two days instead of one. Life at a public defenders’ office is dynamic and always busy. The kind of work that I do changes on a daily basis depending on the needs of our clients. The clients are, after all, the heart and soul of our work. Sometimes I go into work knowing that I have to finish something and serve it or mail it before 3pm that day, and sometimes I walk into the office with no idea as to what’s to come–but every day I leave the office feeling fulfilled and excited about the work that I have done.

At the Bronx Defenders, each intern has one, two, or three supervising attorneys. I have only one, but with almost 90 open cases assigned to her alone at any time, there is enough work to go around. I meet with my attorney every morning to go over our schedule that day, and usually follow her to court or to client meetings. There are also any number of trainings happening each week, ranging from interacting with clients with diminished capacities to HIV/AIDS confidentiality and disclosure requirements, or from strategies to get clients’ vehicles back from the NYPD pending their trials to helping clients in Rikers file petitions to challenge their solitary confinement. Both attorneys and interns attend trainings, because everyone is always learning and improving. Because of the high workload typical to PD offices, interns get a significant amount of responsibility, and simultaneously a lot of autonomy over our schedules. It is unbelievably inspiring to work creatively with such a powerfully inspired and passionate group of people who also happen to extremely smart.

Being at a PD office is not just about running around trying to stamp out fires that spring up all the time, though that’s what it can feel like at times. Almost every day, I talk with my supervising attorney about deeper questions that come up in our work, including the role that our office should play in community organizing; how public defenders can meaningfully manage both work and life so that they don’t fall victim to burnout; the complexity of domestic violence issues in many of our clients’ lives; and how attorneys at our office personally deal with zealously defending the occasional client who is accused of committing crimes they cannot stomach, or who may very well be “menaces to society;” among other topics. Demonstrating the commitment of these attorneys to grappling daily with these questions, Bronx Defenders founder Robin Steinberg sat down around a table with all of the interns in the beginning of the summer to have a 2-hour long conversation about feminism and public defense–two ideological and moral commitments that may often conflict.

I have already learned so much from working at the Bronx Defenders, even though summer’s only half over. Simply spending time with the clients, attorneys, and fellow interns who make up my day has made me think more deeply and critically about my goals as a future lawyer and as a person than any moment in law school so far. Any work I do in the future, whether in a PD office or not, will, I think, be far more meaningful for having had this summer working directly for and with clients in the Bronx. I could not have asked for a more wonderful first summer experience.