Law student returns from Alaska internship with a national public service award—and with an even stronger resolve to provide needed legal assistance to minorities and the poor.
Law student Scott Burrill’s interest in criminal justice was sparked when he was an undergrad at the University of Wisconsin, majoring in European history. A part-time job as an investigator for the law school’s legal clinic took him off campus and into the community, to a client’s doorstep in one of Madison’s low-income neighborhoods.
“You go into their homes and see how the poorer population lives in the United States,” says Burrill, who at the time had taken a few elective courses in criminal justice, almost by accident. “There’s such a problem in the way our system treats the poor.”
That experience set him on a path that led to law school—and to The University of Iowa. He was drawn in part by Iowa’s in-house clinic, which operates like a law firm within the walls of the college, offering student interns opportunities to represent clients at all stages of the legal process.
In a lot of programs, Burrill found, “Students go all the way through law school and they don’t get any sort of practical experience. They don’t actually learn how to be a lawyer.”
At Iowa, Burrill found a lot of support for the very thing that drew him to law school in the first place. “The lawyers here are very passionate about public service,” he says. “We have a very robust student population that cares about public service.”
And he is passionate about his interactions with clients, who come to the clinic with cases involving divorce and child custody, domestic violence, employment and disability law, immigration services, and criminal defense.
“It’s amazing what a little legal assistance can do for someone who would not be able to do it on their own,” Burrill says.
His growing commitment to public service took Burrill in the summer of 2009 to the state public defender agency in Kenai, Alaska, where he completed an internship through Equal Justice Works, an organization that provides legal assistance to low-income and underserved communities in the United States. For his unpaid service, Burrill received a $1,000 AmeriCorps stipend for future educational expenses; he also received assistance from the College of Law’s Equal Justice Foundation, whose mission is to help defray students’ living expenses during public interest clerkships—and to create a lasting commitment to public service and pro bono work.
For Burrill, the 5,000-mile drive was worth it, not only for the moose and caribou he shared the road with. In Kenai, Burrill was charged with advocating for indigent clients, those facing criminal charges as well as parents trying to get back their children after the state assumed custody. In the first trial he second-chaired, he received a not-guilty verdict for a client who, despite the inherent risks of facing trial, refused to plead to something he was innocent of—one of the most rewarding moments of Burrill’s life.
“Once you have a conviction—even an arrest—on your record, it’s that much harder to improve your life later,” he says. “It sets people down a path for the rest of their lives.”
Burrill’s zealous defense of his clients in Kenai won him the 2009 Exemplary Public Service Award from Equal Justice Works. He returned to Iowa with an even fiercer desire to seek justice in a system flawed by inequities for minorities and the poor.
He is buoyed by fellow Iowa students who also aspire to serve in the public interest—in human rights and environmental law, in public defender offices, and in civil legal aid, offering low-cost services in family, employment, and immigration law.
“There’s a whole corps of Iowa law students who want to do public service their whole lives,” says Burrill, who plans to work his whole life in indigent defense—to offer clients in underserved communities a chance to find their way out of the circumstances they’ve landed in.
“The frustrating thing is that people who have no contact with the criminal justice system don’t understand anything about it,” says Burrill, who has experienced firsthand the incorrect assumptions and ulterior motives that often underlie a case. “The thing that you’re supposed to do in the criminal justice system—which is administer justice—doesn’t necessarily happen as much as it should.”
Yet he is encouraged by current research on public defense—on the intersection of social problems (including homelessness, drug addiction, mental illness, and family violence) that may drive clients into the criminal justice system. For a model, Burrill looks to the work of the Bronx Defenders, a New York nonprofit organization that for more than 10 years has been striving—through teams of investigators, social workers, mental health professionals, and civil and criminal attorneys—to transform the role of the public defender.
Burrill, who graduates from the College of Law in May, hopes to be at the center of that kind of transformation—despite any misconceptions and roadblocks he may encounter along the way.
“The frustration fuels the fire,” he says. “The main thing that I always want to do is solve problems. It just makes me want to work harder.”
story by Eileen Bartos; photo by Tim Schoon
April 19, 2010