2020 First Place Winner Excellence in Ethics Scholarship

 by Allison Wick

As a foster youth, I was exposed to the legal system at an earlier age than most young adults. Despite this history, my academic, volunteer, and work experiences have shown me that my professional goals are achievable through providing legal assistance to underserved youth. This unique outlook, and my desire to give back to those who come from unconventional upbringings, is why I believe I would make an exceptional attorney. Just recently, I made the decision to attend Syracuse University College of Law in the fall of 2020. I know that attending Syracuse will allow me the opportunity to expand my intellectual and legal understanding required to effectively defend and advocate for juvenile populations.

I have seen first-hand how someone’s life circumstances can mold their decisions. For some people, being a foster youth can yield negative actions, and for others, it can be a motivation to do good for their communities. With the opportunities that I have found in my life, I believe I am fortunate enough to be one of this latter group. During my own experience as a foster youth, I always desired that any of my social workers or legal representatives would understand my unorthodox upbringing. Now that I am approaching law school, I understand my value to juvenile populations who have similarly faced adversity in their pasts.

This past summer, I was selected to be a scholar at Chapman University’s Fowler School of Law LSAC PLUS program. I felt honored to be selected as a scholar as I could have never imagined being selected for such an incredible program some short years ago. When I was in the foster system, I was behind academically and struggled to focus on long-term goals. Since this time, I have worked hard to achieve academic excellence and learned how to present myself professionally. While in Southern California, I had the opportunity to volunteer at Veterans Legal Institute, where I finally felt my passion and skills collaborate to successfully help underserved populations. This nonprofit showed me that legal community support programs can do more than offer referrals to external services. I saw how staff can work together to offer constructive advice and guidance through legal processes. I also saw how attorneys act as direct resources for their clients, and in the nonprofit setting, they provide more support than they take away from clients. From this observation, I confirmed that my professional goal is to advocate for and defend young adults in legal proceedings.

Criminal defense, to me, implies that their side would not be favored when tried in court; if someone aligns their actions with laws, they would never end up in court or need a defense. Actions aligned with the good, or betterment of society, can sometimes have a different meaning to certain demographics. For instance, there are many people who are trying to provide for their families and get involved in criminal activity with a few other apparent options. In this way and others, there are many people considered criminals who may have good intentions in their actions, also many people who aim to fulfill a good cause and act poorly, which is why they require a defense. Following laws is of course crucial for the function of society. However, for many people in America, including current and former foster youth, there are instances of desperation where they act in poor judgment. As a result of poorly provided resources and education, breaking laws can appear as the only option for some members of our society. Performing pro-bono work is one direct resource that I can personally supply to people who might not have the proper judgment to act according to the laws or the money to afford an attorney.

In no way is breaking the laws acceptable, but when it is done, labeling someone as a criminal for acting out of desperation is unproductive. A better solution is trying to provide low-income communities with the needed resources to get back on their feet. Not all of these solutions are immediately applicable to our current state; fortunately, a pro-bono defense is one way to protect these communities who are deprived of resources.

There are many attorneys who make high wages, but high earnings do not promote the good that a legal professional can provide society. The evidence that there needs to be more legal support and resources available to those who cannot afford it is evident within the high recidivism rate across the United States. To me, this symbolizes failure to cooperate, and further our failure to support one another. It is my belief that if one team member is failing, the whole team is failing. In a county that boasts of our winning streak against others, we are failing ourselves by leaving others to pick themselves back up in the dust.

Attorneys are people, just like everyone else, including those who cannot afford legal services. As people, everyone has different interests and specialty areas of focus. As this is so, there are also people who cannot afford legal services that require legal services in different areas of focus. However, there are not always free or low-cost legal services for all areas of law. Pro-bono work should not be viewed as providing free legal services, but rather using the specific achievement of being an attorney for the betterment of society. The law is unique in that it is dependent on people; in America, the law is also majorly dependent on attorneys. For the law to be good, attorneys must also align their actions with well-intention rather than any ill-intention. One way for attorneys to practice the good is by providing their services to people who truly need defense. I, personally, would like to use my identity as a foster youth as a reminder to remain humble during my professional career as a juvenile defense attorney. By remaining humble and seeing the humanity within each client rather than a paycheck, pro-bono work can support the good of society. After all, the etymology of “pro-bono” refers to the aim of the common good rather than that of individual happiness.