Author Discusses a Life in Public Interest Law
October 23, 2008 — The rewards of public-interest law include tiny victories and major ones that take decades to achieve, Abbe Smith, law professor at Georgetown University Law School and co-director of its Criminal Justice Clinic, told students during a visit to Earle Mack School of Law.
Smith’s newly released legal memoir, “Case of a Lifetime,” recounts her efforts to free a woman who was wrongfully convicted of being an accomplice to robbery and murder in 1977. Her client, who had been convicted on a shaky eyewitness account, served more than 28 years in prison rather than plead guilty to the robbery charge. Despite Smith’s painstaking legal efforts over two decades, her client did not leave prison until she became eligible for parole in 2005.
The case that haunted Smith also inspired a gripping narrative that offers nuanced insights about relationships between attorneys and clients as well as the legal system.
As a scholar-in-residence, Smith met with faculty and students over the course of two days to discuss the maddening case, the complexities of writing about it and the unseen benefits of defending impoverished clients.
Although writing about clients is a delicate and ethically fraught proposition, Smith told faculty members, doing so is essential.
“I think we have a moral obligation to tell these stories,” said Smith, who previously worked for eight year in the Philadelphia Public Defender’s Office.
During a discussion of the book with faculty and students, Smith acknowledged that personal and cultural similarities and differences affect relationships between attorneys and clients in unpredictable ways.
While public-interest lawyers do not always receive gratitude from their clients, Smith told students in the Justice Lawyering Seminar, there are advantages.
“There’s something really fun in fighting for somebody else,” she said. “And you’re the favorite guest at everybody’s dinner parties.”
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