Juvenile Law Center

Brenda McKinney

LL.M. Candidate, University of Otago, Dunedin, New Zealand

Intern, Summer 2011

Lessons Learned

It is sometimes hard to imagine what being a “real” lawyer will be like as a first-year student in law school. Juvenile Law Center not only introduced me to practice in the field, but also showed me that being a lawyer can be exciting, challenging, fun and meaningful. One of my assignments at Juvenile Law Center involved helping to create a new argument challenging juvenile life without parole sentences. I contributed research to Juvenile Law Center’s briefs to the California Supreme Court and the United States Supreme Court as part of the successful effort to end mandatory life without parole sentences for youth.

Before my involvement in this project, I never realized that something as “minor” as an internship assignment could be used to actualize real progress. It illustrated the truth of Margaret Mead's adage, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” It also demonstrated that while there can be divides between law and policy on the books and in practice, it is vital to stay focused and work together toward a better system. It showed me what working toward social justice and being a lawyer really means.

My interaction with youth and families also underscored the reality of the school-to-prison pipeline and the dire need to dismantle it. Through court observations, interviewing families involved in the "kids for cash" case, and conducting "Know Your Rights" trainings with youth, I met countless kind and intelligent youth who were no different from kids in any classroom. I watched as the motivated, prepared and skilled Juvenile Law Center attorneys used law as a tool to promote access, appropriate resources and reliable support for all youth, which taught me that practicing law could be more than a job. These experiences revealed a larger picture: that serving as an attorney can provide an enjoyable opportunity to make our communities better places – for everyone – but especially for vulnerable populations.

Impact on my Career

It is hard to express how grateful I am for the substantial impact Juvenile Law Center has had on my career so far. During one conversation with Bob, I told him about my developing interest in Restorative Justice. Several days later, he gave me his personal copy of one of Howard Zehr’s books on Family Group Conferences, one of the more common models of Restorative Justice. This book and experience influenced what would eventually become the topic for both my LL.M. thesis and a Fulbright award to New Zealand in 2014, where I conducted research on the country’s use of restorative practices.

In addition to getting to know Bob and Marsha, Juvenile Law Center offered me the opportunity to work alongside and get to know every single person in the office, including Debbie, the other interns, and all of the attorneys. This exposed me to different sides of our practice, modeled how professionals successfully manage and prioritize projects and concretized my interest in pursuing a career in child law.

I continue to use what I learned at Juvenile Law Center in my professional life on a daily basis and in my interaction with youth. The passion around the office is inspiring and contagious. My former supervisors have become true friends, mentors and role models, who have helped me find footing when my path did not seem clear. Juvenile Law Center is a gold standard, a warm community that continues to effect positive change for our country’s most vulnerable population on both the local and national levels. I feel proud and incredibly privileged to be an alumna of this wonderful organization.

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