Emma Andersson

Hometown: Topanga Canyon, CA

Current Job: Staff Attorney at the ACLU Criminal Law Reform Project

Education: B.A., Barnard College

YLS Year: 2008

Clerkship: Judge Richard Paez, 9th Circuit

Activities at YLS: San Francisco Affirmative Litigation Project, Rebellious Lawyering Conference, Initiative for Public Interest Law at Yale, Legal Assistance Clinic, American Constitution Society. 


What does your day-to-day schedule look like?

Working for the Criminal Law Reform Project, I alternate between spending a lot of time on the road and working in the office. I travel to a variety of rural and urban places to investigate problems in the criminal justice system and look for ways that our office can be helpful. For example, I meet with people in communities who interact with the criminal justice system, including judges, police departments, public defenders, prosecutors, local advocates, and most importantly, individuals who are or have been in custody and their families. I regularly travel outside of New York, so I’m constantly being exposed to new jurisdictions and legal regimes—it’s a fascinating and never-ending learning experience. When I’m in the office, I’m doing research and writing, taking calls, and having meetings. Overall, about 60 percent of my time is spent on current cases, and 40 percent is devoted to new investigations.

What was the most important skill or lesson you took away from your time at YLS? Are there any skills you rely on now that you felt were not emphasized enough in law school?

One of the best experiences I had at YLS was learning from Professor Pamela Karlan while she was visiting from Stanford Law. I took her constitutional litigation and law of democracy courses. I was also very fortunate that Professor Karlan agreed to work with me and one other student on an independent study. All of this was invaluable doctrinally for what I do now. Professor Karlan’s courses were also important for me because she’s just an incredible teacher—her energy and passion reignited mine. Rob Harrison’s Advanced Legal Writing course also gave me invaluable skills and an appreciation for the artistry of legal writing. After that course legal writing didn’t seem as ugly and clunky as it first did.

I’m not sure how you could teach this, but in my current job I often have to create momentum from inertia in order to disrupt entrenched and unfair legal systems. This involves a whole host of skills, and it would have been helpful to have had more exposure to that during law school.

Was there a particular extracurricular activity you participated in at YLS that you found helped your career?

I think one of the most important things I did was choose not to follow what many thought to be the conventional law school path. For example, I decided not to participate in any journals, which made sense for me because I had more time to explore other interests and I wasn’t trying to build a career in legal academia. If you’re trying to build a public interest career, your extracurricular and summer options are not laid out for you as clearly as they are for other jobs, but it’s worth it and it will work out if you take the extra time and energy to focus on opportunities that excite you.

What expected or unexpected professional obstacles have you faced?

One of the unexpected obstacles I faced early on was all of the moving and job-hopping that a public interest career can require in your first few years out of law school. Many public interest jobs do not hire candidates straight out of law school, which means you have to get a number of clerkships and/or fellowships for a few years. These are often in different places and, for me, were on opposite sides of the country, so it was a lot of moving and a near constant state of applying for jobs.

I also wasn’t fully prepared for the obstacles that come with being a young woman in the law, and I didn’t necessarily appreciate how present these obstacles would be on a regular basis. Whether you encounter explicit or implicit sexism, you have to make a very conscious effort to prevent it from undermining or distracting you, and you’ll face hard decisions about when to confront it and when to ignore it.

In terms of my legal work, I’ve learned over time that the law is not a science, but an art. When I started law school and was first practicing I thought I should have the perfect answer to every question, but over time I realized that there are inevitable uncertainties in this profession and I have grown more comfortable with that.

How have you managed to balance your work and life? Has this changed throughout the course of your career?

I love my job, but I also wish I had more time for my other interests. I have a relatively good work-life balance for the legal field, but it’s still not what I would pick in an ideal world. It has gotten better over time as I’ve gained an appreciation for quality over quantity, come to better understand what is expected of me, and learned to prioritize strategically.

What is the most direct path to where you are today? If you could redo your own career path, what would you change? 

I’m very happy with where I’ve been and where I am now, so I wouldn’t choose to redo my own path. The only path you should faithfully follow is the one that leads you to do things that you’re genuinely interested in and feel passionately about. Spending law school immersed in activities and classes that you’re excited about is the best way to build a career that you’ll find rewarding. I also think it’s helpful to know that it’s okay and not uncommon if you don’t end up doing what you thought you’d be doing when you were a 1L or 2L.

What traits impress you most in young lawyers?

Balance impresses me most. Balance between academic and people skills, between taking work seriously and not taking yourself too seriously, between respecting authority and questioning it, between confidence and humility, between idealism and pragmatism.

What fights or challenges are most pressing for young female lawyers?

The law, the legal profession, and all of us who work in it have a long way to go to overcome our entrenched history of undervaluing people based on gender, race, sexuality, ethnicity, religion, disability, and socio-economic status. Since we’re ostensibly in the business of fairness and justice, we have to be better at embodying those values ourselves.