Why I Want to Prosecute

BY ANGELA YINGLING

For most students here at Harvard Law School, the fall of 2L year is a frenzied time – daylight hours are spent trekking to twenty-minute interview after twenty-minute interview while weekday nights consist of riding the meet-and-greet, firm-sponsored cocktail party circuit. At least that was how it appeared from the outside looking in, since I cannot pretend to be any sort of authority on the OCI process, as I chose to spend my fall somewhat differently. I knew I wanted to work in public interest law, so I was able to gleefully delete each email from OCI warning us that another firm recruiting deadline was approaching. But then came December, and reality began to sink in – I had no job. So as my classmates struggled to decide which of their offers to accept, I tried to decide where I even wanted to apply.

I went back and forth for a while – after all, the term “public interest law” encompasses a great many things. I was no longer sure in which field I was interested; I had returned to school interested in criminal prosecution, but there were so many other options as well. What about human rights? Or child advocacy? And where did I want to go? I had always planned on going home, to Providence, RI, but a year back at school left me wondering if that was the right decision. For a while I was seized by a need to do something exotic, maybe to prove that even though I wasn’t headed for mid-town Manhattan, I was going to be doing something just as interesting and worthwhile with my summer. Did I want to go international, back to Guatemala, where I had spent a summer during my leave of absence? What about to Washington? There were lots of exciting opportunities there. I received advice from all sorts of people – friends, professors, OPIA representatives – when I confessed I was a bit confused about where exactly my Harvard education was leading me. I took their suggestions to heart, but as I flitted from one grandiose plan (DOJ summer honors program?) to another (an internship on Capitol Hill?), I realized that none of these prospects made me as excited as the idea of doing exactly what I had returned to school planning to do.

So I called up my old contact at the Rhode Island Department of Attorney General and arranged a meeting to discuss my potential return to the agency where I had interned three times before – twice during college and once for six months during my leave of absence from Harvard. Unlike most states, Rhode Island (because of its small size) does not have a separate District Attorney’s Office in each county. Rather, all criminal prosecutions are handled by the state workers of the Criminal Division at the AG’s office. By mid-March I cemented my plans with the AG’s office to return as a “Rule 9” intern, which meant that, because I had completed two years of law school and received a passing grade in my Evidence course, I was eligible to actually represent the state during court proceedings.

When I informed people of my plans for the summer I was met with mixed reactions – some people expressed admiration that I followed my heart in making my decision, while I got the distinct impression from others that I was playing it too safe by returning to a place where I had already worked, especially considering it was located in such a small market. If you want to do criminal prosecution, I was told more than once, why don’t you call up the U.S. Attorney here in Boston? Or better yet, New York? I must admit I experienced the same spectrum of emotions myself as I thought about my upcoming summer. But whenever I thought about spending my summer anywhere except Rhode Island, I felt so unexcited that was beginning to realize just how badly I wanted to return to my home. I also knew I was going to have to make some real decisions soon about where I ultimately wanted to work after graduation, and I had a feeling that this summer would help me determine, one way or another, if my long-held dreams of being a state prosecutor would stand up in face of the realities of the job.

By the time June 1st rolled around I was pretty confident in my decision, but still somewhat plagued by fears that I was missing a better opportunity somewhere else. But from the moment I entered the familiar building to go to my fourth intern orientation there, I started to feel better, even despite the fact that I was assigned to Courtroom 9 – the infamous Daily Criminal Calendar for Providence County. This calendar deals mainly with probation violators who have either committed a new crime (substantive violators) or who have not met the terms and conditions of their probation (counseling, restitution, etc.) – technical violators. The calendar also handles many motions and arraignments as well. Courtroom 9 has by far the longest calendar in the whole state, and it was a notoriously tough assignment. AGs were usually assigned there for about a year before they moved onto the more prestigious trial calendar.

It was extremely exciting and scary as anything. As a Rule 9, I was basically considered another member of the AG’s office, and was given lots of the responsibilities a “real” lawyer would have. After the first week, I began to “call the calendar” by myself, which means that as the judge went through the sometimes-25 page calendar every morning, I would have to inform her of what the state was planning on doing with the case that day. I handled motions to expunge and to vacate no-contact orders, arguing the state’s position on such matters. I was also assigned the technical violations, which meant I had to read through each probation report before court each morning, and make an assessment about what should be done with the defendant. Sometimes, if the offense was particularly egregious, I recommended jail; other times I would allow the defendant another chance to meet his or her requirements, albeit on a tighter leash and with further court reviews. My supervisors also let me handle some of my own substantive violation cases. For each case, I had to go through the police report, speak with victims and witnesses, decide on a plea offer and relay it to the defendant’s attorney. We would then conference the case with the judge, who would listen to us both argue our sides before making a final recommendation for a plea bargain to wrap up both the new charges and the underlying probation violation. I would then represent the state as we officially put the plea bargain through. If no agreement could be reached, the violation would pass to hearing (handled by our team) and the new case would pass to the trial calendar. Hearings were rare, but did occur, and part of my job was to prepare the witnesses to testify in these proceedings.

My days were always different, and always crazy. We always had too many cases and not enough time. We were always pulled in several directions at once. But I loved it. I loved my cases. I loved my co-workers and the support I received from them. I thrived in the fast-paced setting, and the feeling that I was really accomplishing something each day. It was heart-breaking at times; frustrating at times; rewarding at times. I will never forget how I spent hours preparing for a hearing on a particularly bad domestic violence case, speaking with the frightened victim several times, only to have her not show up the day of the hearing, unwilling and afraid to testify against her boyfriend. We were never able to find her, and I still wonder where she is today. Other stories are happier; I remember almost tearing up myself when I was able to inform a crying woman that her ex-husband, who had abused her for years and years, would not be bothering her for a long, long time.

By the time my internship ended, I knew that I had discovered, with certainly, where I wanted to work after graduation, even despite the fact that I wasn’t wined and dined this summer! Unlike my friends at firms, we didn’t have sponsored dinners or outings, but we still had a lot of fun. Instead of three-course meals and fancy martinis, we had hamburgers and coolers of beer at our s
oftball games. We bought our own lunches and drank at two-for-one happy hours down the street. It wasn’t glamorous, but it was fun.

Looking back, I am so happy that despite the criticism I received and the doubts I had, I went with my heart. The RI Department of Attorney General may not be the top destination for most students at HLS, but for me, it was a perfect fit.

Angela Yingling, 3L, is from Cranston, RI.

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