One of the things that I promised in 2015 was that I’d share more with you guys about my legal career. From the start of this blog, I’ve struggled with how to incorporate my professional life with the content here, and up till now, I’ve never felt like I had the right solution.
Honestly, in the past seven years since Sugarlaws was founded, I’ve largely ignored the topic of my job on here. Except for writing about the challenges of being a working mom, I haven’t written much about my life as a lawyer, and often it feels like a gaping hole that this blog is missing. As much as I love fashion, food, and our son, my work is an integral part of my life. So this year, I’m making a conscious effort to share more about it with you guys.
But when I think about my legal career, I have to start at the beginning.
So today, I want to tell you about Lonnie Jones.
This was one of the first cases I ever worked on as a lawyer, and still one of the absolute most meaningful. When I was a second year law student, I spent the summer working at Davis Polk, the firm I would eventually join after graduation, and one day, a senior associate asked me to help with a pro bono brief he was working on. (For those of you who aren’t lawyers, pro bono work is legal work that law firms do for free for people who can’t otherwise afford it.)
The brief was a criminal appeal for Lonnie Jones, a man who had been wrongfully convicted for murder and sentenced to life in prison. Lonnie’s conviction was based on flawed testimony from a single eyewitness, and even in my first days working on his case, it was crystal clear that his conviction was a serious injustice. I helped with the brief and then went back to law school for my third year, hoping for the best but knowing how difficult it can be to get a criminal conviction overturned. DNA evidence has helped immeasurably, but when a conviction is based on eyewitness testimony, even drastically flawed convictions are very, very hard to overturn.
Fast forward one year, I graduated and joined the firm. And in my first week, the same senior associate told me that we had won Lonnie’s appeal: his conviction had been overturned, and he was getting a new trial.
And we would be representing him.
Now, I know that TV and the movies give the impression that murder trials happen every day, for a lawyer with a white-shoe corporate litigation practice, they happen exactly never. I immediately asked to join the trial team, knowing that this might be my only chance to work on a criminal trial — and, more importantly, knowing that we had a chance to correct the injustice that Lonnie had spent almost six years in prison for.
For confidentiality reasons, I can’t say anything about the substance of our trial preparation, so I’ll tell you about the mood of our team, which was something pretty incredible. For months, we spent every night and weekend gathered around conference rooms in our office, talking with witnesses and debating points of strategy. We learned firsthand about New York City gangs and inner city housing projects from people who lived in them. I visited Rikers Island and learned that an underwire bra sets off their metal detectors (who knew?).
And then, in the middle of winter in Brooklyn, eight months after I graduated from law school, we took Lonnie’s case to trial.
He was acquitted of all charges by a jury, and I’ll never forget the moment that the jury read his verdict: there was so much relief and joy in that courtroom, it was like nothing I’d ever experienced. After six years in jail, Lonnie left that courtroom a free man. The bailiff cried as she took off his handcuffs, and he went home to his wife, who had stayed by his side and believed in his innocence for all those years.
In many ways, that case is where my legal career started. This month marks eight years since that trial, and since then, I’ve tried other cases and gotten other verdicts, but I’m not sure I’ve ever had one that meant so much to me as that one did. It was an incredible experience to begin my career and one that I’m still grateful for every single day.
I’m not a criminal lawyer and chances are, I’ll never try a murder case again. But having that experience as the focal point of my first year as a lawyer shaped me in so many ways. It gave me faith in our legal system to get the right result and the courage to seek justice, no matter how tough the odds.
And most of all: It taught me that the best lawyers look for the truth rather than spinning a story, a principle that I carry with me to this day.