Q&A with Wasserstein Fellow Jordan Schreiber

BY ERIN ARCHERD

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Wasserstein Fellow Jordan Schreiber is a 2001 graduate of Harvard Law School and is now a Deputy Public Defender in California at the Contra Costa County Office of the Public Defender. He advises and represents adult and juvenile low-income clients in felony criminal proceedings, ranging from petty theft to murder.

He is also Founder and President of Team Pride, a nonprofit dedicated to preventing crime and promoting education by enrolling at-risk children in leadership training, mentorship programs, and special martial arts instruction nationwide.

What did you do before you came to HLS?

After college, I spent two years at Oxford [on a Rhodes Scholarship] and then a year in New Haven, where I ran a Taekwondo school for low-income kids. At Oxford, I did research on the politics of bilingual education. A few years later, while I was in law school, I finally submitted the dissertation and received a doctorate in politics.

What activities did you participate in during law school that, looking back, helped lead you to where you are today?

I did as much clinical work as possible while I was in law school. This included the Prison Legal Assistance Project and a semester at the Hale and Dorr Legal Services Clinic in Jamaica Plain. My second summer was spent interning with the Youth Advocacy Project, which is the juvenile unit of the Massachusetts public defender office in Roxbury. That experience convinced me to pursue a career as a public defender. During my 3L year, I did Professor Ogletree’s Introduction to Advocacy clinical, which allowed me to spend a semester representing clients in criminal cases under the supervision of an attorney. I highly recommend that experience for anyone interested in becoming a trial lawyer.

What were some of the biggest reasons you chose to become a public defender?

I wanted to do direct representation, to form relationships with my clients. I also wanted to be in court, particularly doing jury trials. I wanted the intellectual challenge that comes from having to stay abreast of changes in criminal jurisprudence. Most importantly, I shared Bryan Stevenson’s view that there is more to people than the worst thing they’ve ever done, and I felt that the public defender is the only person in the criminal system whose duty it is to recognize that fact.

What are some of the stereotypes about your job that you’d like to dispel?

One professor once told me that defense attorneys are “fact-deniers.” I disagree. The attorneys I know understand that many of our clients have committed a crime. But we know that there is more to the process than the simple determination of guilt or innocence. First, my clients are not necessarily guilty of all the charges they face. Prosecutors often overcharge cases in order to have a strong negotiating position. Second, even if my clients are guilty, the sentence they face upon conviction is generally, in my view, disproportionate to the offense. It also is likely to be counterproductive. One of my clients once articulated this issue well, when he told a judge who was sending him to prison: “Prison is easy for me. I can do time standing on my head. The hard thing would have been for me to complete a drug treatment program and overcome my addiction. I wish you had tried that instead. When I get out of prison, I’ll be a convicted felon. No one will hire me. I’ll have no skills. The only connections I’ll have will be people I met in prison, and the only way I’ll be able to eat will be by using those connections. And you’ll see me right back here again.” Finally, I’m not denying facts when I insist that the police be held accountable for violating my clients’ rights, even if my clients are guilty. If the police illegally stop and search 100 African-Americans in a low-income neighborhood, and 99 of them have no contraband on them, you’ll only ever hear about the one guy who had drugs on him because he’ll be charged with a crime. The others will never end up in court. And if the court’s response when I challenge the illegal search is to say, “Well, screw him, he’s guilty anyway,” then the court loses the opportunity to tell the police that what they did to those other 99 people was wrong. Just about every case you read in criminal law that sets the boundaries on lawful police behavior involved a guilty defendant. But we all benefit from those boundaries.

Was there a professor or faculty member at HLS who inspired you or provided guidance?

I had a lot of support and guidance from Professor Martha Minow. Professor Weinreb’s Crim[inal] Law class and Professor Stuntz’s Advanced Crim[inal] Pro[cedure] class cemented my interest in the topic. And Professor Carol Steiker’s Capital Punishment Seminar gave me a chance to focus in depth on this interest in a more intimate academic setting.

What did you do during your summers?

I spent my first summer in Santa Fe, New Mexico. For half the summer I worked in the special education office of the state education department, writing new special ed regulations to comply with the newly amended federal law. The second half was spent in the Children’s Court Attorney’s Office, working on child abuse and neglect cases. I knew by the end of the summer that I’d rather be in court than drafting policy. During the second summer, with the juvenile public defender unit in Roxbury, I was assigned a supervising attorney (Barbara Fedders, who is now a clinical instructor at Harvard’s Criminal Justice Institute), who gave me seven of her cases and let me do all of the work on behalf of those clients for the summer, including all court appearances.

Have you used LIPP, and, if so, how has the experience been for you?

I did use LIPP for my first few years as a public defender. The pay for public defenders in California is surprisingly good, and at my current salary I no longer need LIPP. However, for those first few years LIPP was extremely helpful. (My monthly loan payments come to nearly $2,000.) I can’t speak highly enough of LIPP – it’s an incredibly generous and flexible program, and I think if more students fully understood how good it is, we’d hear far fewer people saying that they have to work for corporate firms because of their student debt.

How did you become involved in the martial arts and what do you think it can do for children?

I’ve been doing Taekwondo since I was nine years old. My instructor, a senior master, has long been a mentor and is now a close friend and a member of the board of directors of Team PRIDE, which is the nonprofit organization I started to enroll low-income kids nationwide in Taekwondo programs. I believe these programs offer children mentorship, discipline, and the confidence and self-respect needed to make smart choices. There are some longitudinal studies showing that children enrolled in martial arts programs have higher self-esteem, are less likely to be aggressive and violent, and are less likely to commit crimes. The structure and discipline required also have been shown to help children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) to focus in school.

What led you to start Team Pride?

I came up with the idea when I was running my New Haven Taekwondo school before law school. I had a lot of low-income kids in my classes, and their families couldn’t afford to pay for the classes. I wanted to do fundraising to support their enrollment, and realized that it would be easier to solicit donations and obtain corporate matching grants if I had a nonprofit organization with 501(c)(3) status so that donations would be tax-deductible. I developed the idea more thoroughly while I was in law school – my third-year paper consisted essentially of a business plan for the organization. One of my law school friends convinced his firm to do the work of getting Team PRIDE incorporated and obtaining tax-exempt status for us, pro bono.

Do you have any advice for HLS students that you wish you’d heard while you were here?

Do as much clinical work as possible. Pursue a career that will fulfill you. As a Harvard Law Scho
ol graduate, you can do just about anything you want. Why would you choose a career that doesn’t make you happy?

What would you tell people who are applying for public interest fellowships (Skadden, Equal Justice, Soros, etc.) post-graduation?

Take advantage of Harvard’s resources. Judy Murciano Goroff is a phenomenal advisor. Talk to people working in your proposed field to make sure your fellowship proposal is realistic and serves a genuine need.

May HLS students contact you directly with questions about public interest work?

Of course. They can email me at jschr@pd.cccounty.us

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