Women Criminal Defense Attorneys blog

Connecting Women in Criminal Law

Women Criminal Defense Attorneys: Interview with Abbe Smith

Abbe Smith is a Professor of Law at Georgetown University and since 1996 has served as the Director of the Criminal Defense and Prisoner Advocacy Clinic. Prior to that, she was the Deputy Director of the Criminal Justice Institute at Harvard Law School.  Smith started her legal career at the Defender Association of Philadelphia and spent eight years as a public defender before entering academia.  Today, Abbe Smith continues to actively practice as both a clinical supervisor and member of the Criminal Justice Act panel.  She has written extensively on criminal defense, legal ethics, juvenile justice, and clinical legal education.  She is the author of the book Case of a Lifetime: A Criminal Defense Lawyer’s Story, which was highlighted in the Washington Post, and co-author of the newly released book How Can You Represent Those People? Abbe Smith has dedicated her career to inspiring young lawyers and motivating a new generation of indigent defenders. When you consider that, with every passing year, indigent defense continues to be marginalized, the significance of her impact on our profession is profound and powerful. I am honored to introduce you to Professor Abbe Smith.

You started out your career as an Assistant Defender at the Defender Association of Philadelphia and then gravitated to the academic sector. What drew you into academics and what inspired you to focus on working with law students and shaping our future defenders? 

I like to say I am a public defender in my soul, but I now work in slightly fancier digs.  I consider myself lucky to do what I do:  I teach and mentor law students as both a clinical and classroom teacher; I teach and mentor talented post-graduate fellows committed to careers in indigent defense; I am actively engaged in criminal law practice myself – while I teach and mentor others; and I do a lot of writing – both scholarly and more creative.  What a great job.  Still, in law school, I might have won an award – if one existed — for the “least likely to become a law professor.”  I did not especially like law school; I experienced it as oddly anti-intellectual and careerist.  I was a very happy Philadelphia public defender; in some ways, those were the happiest years of my professional life.  Certainly, my public defender colleagues are by far my favorite colleagues ever.  I sort of “fell” into the academy when I got a call from CUNY Law School – New York’s public (and public interest-oriented) law school – asking whether I might be interested in teaching criminal law there.  It sounded like an interesting opportunity, but not necessarily a permanent one.  CUNY was a very interesting place, and I juggled teaching and public defense for a few years before I took a job at Harvard Law School in 1990 to help create a curriculum-driven criminal defense clinic there.  After six years at Harvard, I came to Georgetown to teach in and help direct the criminal defense clinic and E. Barrett Prettyman Fellowship Program – the gold standard for criminal defense clinics and post-graduate fellowship programs.

You have spent years committed to working with law students in clinics focused on introducing students to the criminal defense field through the representation of indigent clients in the criminal justice system. What type of role do you think these kind of clinics have in shaping the next generation of advocates and encouraging graduates to seek a job working with indigent clients? 

I hope I am helping to mold the next generation of indigent defense lawyers, prisoner rights lawyers, and death penalty lawyers (though maybe, hopefully, there will be no need for death penalty lawyers in this next generation).  Law school clinics are a very intense and intimate way to learn about lawyering on behalf of the poor and marginalized.  Nothing could be more profound or formative for a law student than stepping into a criminal courthouse, jail, or prison – and seeing the disproportionate number of poor black and brown people.  We think and talk about everything in the clinic.  The abiding principle of clinical legal education is that students learn best—in the deepest and most engaged way—when theory is applied in practice and students reflect on their role as lawyers in the broader context of law and society. The clinic I teach offers students an intensive experience in indigent criminal defense and prisoner advocacy. Through client representation, classroom lectures and discussion, simulations and exercises, small group “case rounds,” and individual supervision meetings, students obtain a rich understanding of the culture and ethics of indigent criminal defense, and develop expertise in criminal trial advocacy and the representation of prisoners in administrative proceedings.

Do you see any particular significance or advantage for women law students in having access to practical, hands-on legal experience? 

I’m not sure it’s gendered.  I think it’s important for all law students to have access to hands-on legal experienced under close supervision.  But I do think women get something out of working closely with an experienced woman lawyer and teacher who can talk about the role gender does play in criminal defense.

Do you think women bring unique skills or advantages to trial work and advocacy? And if so how can those skills be best passed on to the next generation of women lawyers? 

That’s an interesting question.  For the past few years, there have been more women than men in my criminal defense clinic – and more women than men in the Prettyman Fellowship Program.  I don’t know whether this is a trend or just coincidence.  Women seem to be gravitating to criminal trial work – especially on behalf of the poor. I don’t want to sound like an “essentialist,” but probably women bring some different things to criminal defense.  I think it’s not coincidental that the founder of the concept “holistic defense” – and its biggest booster – is Robin Steinberg, founder and director of The Bronx Defenders.  Women might be particularly drawn to holistic work – to representing the whole person and not just their particular legal case.  But that doesn’t mean women can’t be “trial jocks” – as much into trying cases as guys.

You are still actively practicing through your participation in the Criminal Justice Act (CJA) and as a clinical supervisor to law students working in your clinic. How important do you think it is for professors to remain active in their field of specialty and how do you think it contributes to your ability to both inspire and challenge your students? 

I need to maintain my trial lawyer credibility for me and for my students and fellows.  I’d feel like a phony – or a has been – if I didn’t know I could still try a case.  For me, law practice and teaching go together; they inform each other.  I think I am a better teacher because of my lawyering, and a better lawyer because of my teaching.

Being that you have a front row seat to the women that have been entering our field since 1990, what have you witnessed changing for women or that still needs to change for women interested in becoming criminal lawyers?  

There are many more women criminal defenders now than there were when I joined the Defender Association of Philadelphia in 1982.  Not that there weren’t many women defenders then; there were.  But there are many PD offices that are majority-female these days.  That wasn’t the case when I began.  I would say the thing that hasn’t changed very much, if at all – and this makes me kind of sad – is that there still are relatively few moms who are senior trial attorneys at public defender offices.  Once women have kids, they go into appeals or juvenile (the juvenile bench trial schedule is a bit more manageable than an adult felony jury schedule), or some other non-trial division of the office.  I think this says more about the persistence of traditional gender roles in domestic life – women keep the home fires burning once there are children — than it does about women’s stamina as defenders.

You are the author of many books, but two really stick out as contributing to memorializing the voice of the female criminal lawyer. One is Case of a Lifetime: A Criminal Defense Lawyer’s Story released in 2008 and the other How Can You Represent Those People? which you co authored and was just released in 2013. I know they are very different books but explain what motivated you to write these two books and what impact do you think they have had for other lawyers and especially women lawyers? 

I started to write Case of a Lifetime as part of my effort to gain the release of the client whose story is at the heart of the book: a woman named Patsy Kelly Jarrett, who spent more than 28 years in prison for a crime she didn’t commit.  I was able to finish it once Jarrett got out.  The book is as much a lawyer’s memoir – my memoir – as it is a story of a wrongful conviction.  It’s a very honest account of what it’s like to be a criminal lawyer – representing the guilty and innocent alike.  How Can You Represent Those People? was a collaborative project with my longtime “professional partner” Monroe H. Freedman.  (In addition to How Can You Represent, Professor Freedman and I co-authored a legal ethics treatise, Understanding Lawyers’ Ethics.  We also co-taught a course on Lawyers’ Ethics for 5 years at Georgetown.)  It was Professor Freedman’s idea to publish a book that collected the best, most thoughtful writing on criminal defense.  I solicited most of the contributors (it is a collection of 15 essays by 16 contributing authors), and did the lion’s share of editing. Both Professor Freedman and I also contributed our own essays.

What was the biggest fear that you had to learn to overcome in becoming an effective advocate? 

The fear of being imperfect.

After years of defending indigent clients and seeing the tough side of this business how do you continue to motivate, energize and inspire new lawyers about criminal defense? 

Criminal defense is a “calling” for me.  For whatever reason, I still feel passionate about it.  The work matters.  The people who get caught up in the system need people who are able and who care.  Whatever it takes to be a lifelong defender, I seem to be well-suited to the task.

Of the women criminal defense attorneys that you know and admire, what made them stand out to you? What skills or qualities did they have as advocates that resonated with you?

I have been very lucky to have worked with or otherwise known some amazing women defenders: Katie Roraback, the women’s rights and criminal defense lawyer from Connecticut, who represented Black Panther member Ericka Huggins in New Haven in the 1970s; Barbara Babcock, the first director of the Public Defender Service for the District of Columbia (and an intellectual hero of mine, whose writing on criminal defense remains influential); Ellen Greenlee, the first women chief defender of the Defender Association of Philadelphia (and still going strong); Judith Levin, one of my best friends and a talented former New York Legal Aid Society lawyer; Ellen Yaroshefsky, another dear friend and a talented former Seattle public defender; the late Shelley Stark, an amazing career defender from Pittsburgh; Cookie Ridolfi, my classmate and good pal at the Defender Association who went on to direct the Northern California Innocence Project; Robin Steinberg, one of my best friends from law school who runs The Bronx Defenders; Phyllis Subin, my former Defender Association colleague and friend who helped train me; Angela J. Davis, dear friend and the talented former director of PDS.  They are all committed and talented criminal lawyers, feminists, and terrific people.

Best advice you ever received? 

Never choose a course based on the course description; choose it for the teacher.  Never buy the 45; always buy the album.

One thing people who know you don’t know about you? 

I’m afraid I’m an open book.  If only there was a little mystery!

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