By: Ephraim Abreu
On March 5, the University’s Chicago Careers in Law Program hosted three experienced criminal law attorneys in an open panel attended by students of all levels ranging from first-years to law students. The three attorneys, Alison Siegler, David Glockner, and Stuart Chanen, provided students with unique views on the criminal justice system, and relayed their respective journeys in the legal world.
Alison Siegler is the founder and current director of the University of Chicago Mandel Legal Aid Criminal Justice Clinic. The clinic is the nation’s only legal clinic devoted solely to the representation of indigents charged with felonies on the federal level. Siegler’s passion for representing indigents comes from her experience in the legal world, which started off in the office of the Federal Public Defender. Siegler’s passion for her work was clear; “[a] person’s liberty rides on you…you’re doing something that really matters.” Siegler ended her career at the Federal Public Defenders to start up the Mandel Clinic four years ago. The clinic works with teams of law school students in essentially functioning in the same capacity as a Public Defender’s office would. Students that work alongside Siegler in case preparation have even presented open courtroom arguments; “‘my’ cases are also ‘our’ cases,” she noted. Aside from her function as the director of the Mandel Clinic, Siegler is also a professor at the law school; however, a career in law was far from what Siegler expected from herself in college.
“I went to law school for all the wrong reasons,” Siegler explained to the audience. Her passion was English – she wanted to pursue doctoral studies in the field. However, familial pressures pushed her towards law school. During her first year, Siegler felt extremely out of place. However, the understanding of the true impact she could have on lives by acting on behalf those who could not afford their own legal representation stirred her passion. After graduation, Siegler pursued this path by working for the Federal Public Defenders and now continues her work at the law school’s clinic. Her advice, “push yourself, if you want to do it, you can do it.” With the culmination of Siegler’s story in the present day, the audience then heard the stories of two federal prosecutors.
David Glockner, a graduate from the College, has worked for the United States Attorney’s Office for over twenty years. Glockner characterizes the criminal practice of law as the intersection between “policy and people.” To illustrate this phenomenon, Glockner provided the audience with an example of one of his most memorable cases. Glockner described a housing project in the South Side of Chicago that was “owned” by a gang, “kids were dodging bullets on their way to school.” The United States Attorney’s Office aimed to identify the leaders of the gang, and the gang itself; this took over 9 months of undercover work. On the day of the execution of the arrest warrants, helicopters swarmed the housing projects and officers bombarded the homes of the terrorizing gang leaders. As the officers walked away with the men who had tormented the residents of the housing project in cuffs, they were met with applauses and hope for a better future; Glockner declared this the end of a “reign of terror.” Glockner’s social perspective of the criminal justice system was echoed by Stuart Chanen in his presentation of his legal career.
At present, Stuart Chanen works as a trial lawyer for the Valorem Law Group and specializes in white collar defense, internal investigations, and labor/employment matters. However, he previously worked in civil litigation and as an Assistant United States Attorney. For many years, Chanen worked in the realm of business law but grew tired of what was largely characterized as the rather Machiavellian nature of the practice involved in civil litigation. The world of criminal law – at least in Chicago – does away with the cutthroat relationship between the prosecution and defense bars, according to Chanen. Upon his arrival at the United States Attorney’s Office, Chanen described himself being rather stunned at the cordiality exhibited between defense and prosecution attorneys; the reasoning, “I’ll see this lawyer again.” Chanen further attributed the camaraderie between the two sides in the criminal bar to the freedom of financial pressures; whereas he pointed out that the world of civil litigation encompasses direct pay from clients and marketing.
Aside from his practice at Valorem, Chanen devotes his time to the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University. The Center aims to assist wrongfully convicted individuals – “exonerees” – in their reintegration back into society. Chanen pointed out the importance of this work by describing the story of one of his clients at the Center, a man who was wrongfully arrested in the 1970s, and released recently on exoneration; “there we were teaching him how to use a cellphone outside of the jail so that he could call his family.” Undoubtedly, society progresses day by day, and this adds to the importance of groups such as the Center at Northwestern.
The group’s work goes beyond helping exonerees in the practicalities of the modern world. Chanen noted that recidivism – the rate at which former inmates return to jail – is drastically high; the Center works to avoid its clients becoming part of the statistic in this regard, and also pushes for social justice on behalf of its exonerees in many cases. Chanen offered the example of unemployment among exonerees: despite their pardoning and proof of innocence , employers usually refuse them employment given their time in prison. Furthermore, exonerees face uphill battles in restoring their right to vote in many cases. The reintegration of ex-convicts, Chanen expressed, is a largely ignored area of the criminal justice system.
Ephraim Abreu is a first-year at the College majoring in Political Science and Romance Languages and Literature.