From day one, it became clear that I would not simply be spending three months in the copy room, when fifteen motions were placed on my desk, each requiring a legal memo on the defense and prosecution’s submissions. Throughout the three months, I carried out a range of legal tasks including preparing for cross examinations, drafting letters to be sent to the District Attorney, formatting motions, attending mitigation field trips and legal research. I also attended court regularly to observe various preparation hearings for our clients. This gave me an interesting insight into the differences between the UK and US legal system. Potentially the most startling difference is the ability to have an alleged offender held in jail for years without them even being convicted. A fact that to this day still confuses and worries me.
I learnt so much from the team in Atlanta, the most significant being the importance of client care. Throughout the entire criminal process all humanity is stripped from the alleged offender, phrases like ‘evil’, ‘murderer’ and ‘monster’ become their name badges. The attorneys showed the importance of reinstating the client’s humanity. That can involve fostering strong relationships with their families or it may just be spending time on a social visit trying to complete a far too difficult crossword. I also learnt that you can find compassion in the most hostile of places. Through each of my client visits I was greeted with interest and kindness, each grateful for the time I had spent on their case. As I walked away from my final client visit, I realized just how correct the quote by Sister Helen Prejean that was emblazoned on my work T-shirt was: ‘we are all worth more than the worst thing we’ve done in our life.’
The office did not just provide us with a range of legal-related experiences; they also planned a full calendar of social events. To welcome us to the ‘office family’, we spent time bonding through watching a film, eating pizza and bowling. We also had a 4th of July celebration and a ‘cookout’ at the boss’s house, which perfectly demonstrated the family dynamic the office lives by. Later in July, we visited the amazing and eye-opening Equal Justice Initiative museum in Montgomery, Alabama. The next day we were off to the shooting range, which after the first initial ten minutes of terror with me jumping at every gun shot, actually turned out to be enjoyable. Even if I did nearly drop the gun!
Outside of the office, I spent time exploring my new favourite city of Atlanta and the rest of the Deep South, with road trips to the beautiful Charleston, Savannah and Nashville. To ensure I had the true American experience I watched a baseball match and a football game. In hindsight, I probably should have read the rules first, considering it took the full first half of the football game to work out how they actually scored!
Overall, I left Atlanta with a renewed passion for justice and understanding of the importance of strong legal representation…and a serious iced coffee addiction!