By Celine Aka • February 26, 2017•Ms. JD, Conference, Careers, Nonprofits and the Public Interest, Law School, Choosing a Career and Landing a Job
2017 Ms. JD Woman of Inspiration Award
The following questions were formulated based on Gigi's profile.
1. Prior to working at Neighborhood Defender Service of Harlem, you worked at a law firm as a corporate associate. So, when did you decide that family law was the area of law you wanted to practice?
I envisioned practicing family law prior to going to law school, probably when I was in college. I just didn't necessarily envision practicing in the specific field that I am in since it is a bit of a niche in the world of family law. However, while I was in college, I had a summer internship working in Brooklyn Family Court with Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA), and I also served as a volunteer case reviewer during the school year, giving advice as community member on reunification goals for children in foster care. Those experiences definitely opened my eyes to the child welfare world and piqued my interest in family law.
Prior to joining NDS, I actually worked at The Bronx Defenders, another public defender organization. I practiced there for 5 years as a staff attorney in the family defense practice, defending parents accused of child neglect and abuse. Although being a law firm associate was not a foreseen part of my vision, my time as a corporate associate was invaluable in that I was able to a) build important relationships, b) gather skills and practices that have only sharpened my practice, c) significantly pay down my law school debt and d) most importantly, transition into the field I desired to by way of the pro bono work I engaged in while there.
2. And why engage in this practice as a defense attorney?
I simply could not envision engaging on any other side of the fence. Other than the judge, there are at least three main players in the courtroom: the attorney for the petitioner (in my state, that would be New York City Administration for Children's Services); the attorney for the child and the attorney for the respondent. As a parents' representative, I am able to not only advocate for my clients, but also indirectly for their children who are often time involuntarily placed in foster care. Fighting on behalf of parents provides me with a larger platform to fight on behalf of families ensuring that all due process rights are afforded, which to me is the true essence of family law.
3. What do you find most challenging about your work?
Representing parents entangled in the child welfare system can be a very emotionally charged task given that you are meeting individuals at some of the most vulnerable points in their lives, trying to navigate them through a legal maze that they may or may not understand how they became entrapped in.
However, that surprisingly is not the most challenging aspect of my work. What is most difficult is challenging and pushing back against an age old system that is presumed to protect children, but which more than not often harms them in deeper levels than can even be imagined.
I would be remiss not to mention the inherit role that racial bias plays in the child welfare system. There is a disproportionate number of Black and Latino families investigated by the Administration for Children’s Services; and thus a disproportionate number of minority families that are prosecuted in court. As a Black female attorney, I feel the repercussions and effects of this disparity very deeply. It is not only my obligation as a lawyer to my clients to fight ardently against this on an individual basis, but to also find ways to challenge the framework of the foster care system and to change it on a larger scale. Forging ahead on that front is a lengthy and challenging fight, but progress has been made bit by bit in a variety of ways.
4. What do you find most rewarding?
Hands down, what’s most rewarding is forming bonds with my clients at the height of their most trying times and serving as a mouthpiece for individuals whose fundamental rights presumably would not be upheld absent my representation of them. Also, I will never get tired of seeing children reunited with their parents after a period of separation.
5. What advice would you give to female attorneys who are considering transitioning from a law firm practice to a public interest practice?
Demonstrate a track record of experiences that reflects your commitment to the issue you would like to work on. Dive into pro bono work and gather the practical skills that would be attractive to a potential public interest employer (motion practice; trial and witness prep; trial experience, etc.). Be fully committed to and passionate about the cause you are aiming to work for. Do not fear a challenge. Be persistent. Withhold judgment for the people you will be serving.
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