By Carissa Mulder • March 14, 2012•Nonprofits and the Public Interest
Welcome back to the third installment of The Offbeat Path! This month is particularly special to me, as our interviewee, Caitlin Gossett, is a friend from Notre Dame, which is where we both attended law school! I hope you’ll enjoy her story. Please feel free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you have questions, comments, or would like to discuss being profiled!
Caitlin, in her own words:
I am a native of Boston, Massachusetts. I grew up in Mission Hill, a neighborhood in Boston. I started undergrad at Xavier University of Louisiana in New Orleans. Xavier is a Catholic, historically Black University. I finished my undergrad degree at Smith College. I majored in Chemistry. I went to law school at NDLS.
Track and field was a big part of my life in high school and undergrad. In undergrad I was on the track team at Smith. I come from a very creative family. My mother is an artist in addition to being a union organizer so I love making art. I also decorate cakes for fun.
I have two dogs, Gabbie and Endie. I got both of them here in West Virginia. They are both rescues. Right now I live in Beckley, West Virginia. Beckley is a very small city in southern West Virginia.
I work in an office that has 8 attorneys. All the cases are distributed evenly in the offices, so I’ve handled felonies starting on my first day.
I represent clients who have been charged with felonies and misdemeanors. I also represent clients who are facing parole revocation and probation revocations. I represent juveniles who have been charged with delinquent or status offenses.
I also represent clients who have had an involuntary commitment petition filed against them. These are individuals who have petitions brought against them to keep them in a mental hospital.
Finally, I represent parents in Abuse and Neglect proceedings.
1. How did you wind up at public defender’s office? Was this your first job out of law school, or did you have other positions before this one?
I have always been dedicated to underserved populations, but I always saw myself doing civil law. I did not think I would be practicing criminal law.
I graduated from Notre Dame Law School when the economy problems first hit. I did not have a job when I graduated. I went home to Boston and it took a little over a year to find a job. Over time I started expanding both the positions I applied to and the geography of the jobs I applied to. I knew being a public defender would give me great experience in the courtroom and I would be working with the population that I had always planned on working with. From there I started to apply to public defender jobs in a number of different states.
3. What is your day-to-day job like? What are your favorite aspects of your job? What are the most challenging aspects of your job?
A regular day at my job involves going to court. In WV we have magistrate court, which is the lower court and circuit court, the higher court.
On a typical day, I go to magistrate court for hearings on misdemeanor cases. A typical hearing involves me meeting with my client to discuss the case and educate them about their rights. For the clients who are interested in a plea deal, I meet with the prosecutor and the officer to work out the best deal I can for my client.
I may also have circuit court hearings. Most of those hearings are plea hearings for felony pleas a client has decided to take or sentencing hearings. At sentencing hearings, I advocate for my client to receive an alternative to prison.
One of my favorite aspects of my job is working with juveniles. I represent kids who have a range of problems including mental illness, drug addiction and/or an unhealthy home environment to name a few. These problems are what lead many kids to become status or delinquent offenders. It is very rewarding when I can help juvenile services to address these problems instead of just being sent to a juvenile detention facility. It gives me hope that a teen who is struggling now may still have a chance to reach their potential and dreams in the future.
The most challenging aspect of my job is seeing how so many of my clients get involved in the criminal system because of untreated mental illness and/or drug addiction. Here, like most states, there is a need for more mental health services and substance abuse programs that poor people can attain access to.
Many clients have the desire to attend intensive substance abuse programs, but the waiting lists are months long. Many of my clients suffer from untreated mental illness because they are too poor to access regular health care and if they are able to see a doctor, they often cannot afford the medications they are prescribed.
4. Do you feel that law school prepared you well to be a public defender, or have there been many things that you’ve had to learn that you think could have been addressed during law school?
Since my first day on the job, I have felt fully prepared represent my clients in court proceedings. I attribute most of my ability to the Intensive Trial Ad Program at NDLS. While there have been many things I have had to learn on the job, Notre Dame gave me a great foundation to build upon.
My ability to research, think critically about the law and use it to advocate for my client grew out of the excellent legal writing education I received during my 1L year.
5. What has been the most meaningful experience you've had as a public defender?
Connecting with my clients has been very rewarding and has reinforced my conviction that all people deserve access to their constitutional rights and to have their rights protected. As an advocate for a criminal defendant, a large part of my job has been making sure my clients get access to their constitutional rights. It is very rewarding to have the first-hand knowledge and experience that preserving a single client’s rights in a single case helps ensure that everyone continues to have their rights protected.
6. If women are interested in pursuing a career as a public defender, or in criminal law generally, what advice would you give them?
I think being a public defender is a great field to start out in, even if your long term goals are in a different area. I have experienced the legal field as still predominantly male, which has added an extra challenge to my everyday work. While it is often challenging to find yourself the only woman in the courtroom or having to develop a solid working relationship with other attorneys who are not used to working with women, developing the skill that allows you to work well in any setting is invaluable.
Further, my female clients often point out how great it is to have an attorney that is a woman. A number of my clients have remarked that they have never had one before.