Call me crazy, but when I started law school, I didn’t necessarily see myself practicing law one day—at least in any traditional sense. I was most interested in community organizing and social movement building and using whatever tools and perspectives I may gain in law school to contribute to building power around neglected communities and progressive movements, especially those oriented around police and prison abolition. Soon after starting, though, I learned of holistic public defense—the combination of indigent criminal defense with social work. And in that moment, it clicked that this was exactly the sort of lawyering I wanted to do.
As much as I appreciate opportunities to work directly with clients and really respect and appreciate the work of public defenders, I had struggled with the limitations of that work in considering it for myself—the absurdly heavy case loads, the inability that created to offer the sort deep and dedicated legal defense I think everyone deserves, and the complete disconnect from other services people ensnared by the criminal system might need to break cycles of poverty and recidivism. But after learning about holistic public defense, I felt drawn to this work because it offered the opportunity to provide deeper, longer-term, comprehensive support to clients¬—not just in their legal cases but also throughout their lives. And to do it in partnership with social workers, who I think are real-life superheroes.
I finished my 1L year feeling drawn to holistic defense in theory but wanting to understand it more in practice. Fortunately, my internship with the Georgia Justice Project offered the opportunity I was looking for to do just that—and left me feeling even more enthusiastic about moving forward with this work. I was able to observe and support each stage of clients’ cases, from intake to adjudication to extended support of additional needs. I was inspired by the thoughtfulness I saw attorneys and social workers bringing to each case, centering the clients throughout the process. I have spent this summer witnessing some of the various ways the criminal system can be shockingly dehumanizing, but I have also seen the GJP team work to combat that, in making clients—and even potential clients whose cases we could not take—feel seen and heard, valued and supported.
Still, it is a small team working against a massive system, and that means that for every client we could support, there were countless more we could not. Knowing and feeling that reality was a distinct challenge of the summer, especially after sitting with incarcerated applicants in jails for hours, hearing about their cases and lives and aspirations, and then learning that we would not be able to take on some of those cases. But working at GJP this summer helped me understand the nuances of how the attorneys and social workers decide which cases they are best suited to support—and that maintaining a standard of excellent client service requires acknowledging the organization’s limited capacity and limiting its case load accordingly.
But even given that limited capacity, I appreciated seeing the various ways GJP works to extend its impact beyond the clients it can serve directly. From helping county governments throughout Georgia implement criminal record-clearing infrastructure, to policy advocacy at the state level and, more recently, the organization’s efforts to build a pioneering restorative justice practice in Georgia, GJP is working to transform how Georgia understands and actualizes systems of justice, accountability, and safety—which will continue to benefit people throughout the state, even those who may never interact directly with the organization.
This was especially inspiring and affirming to me, as I continue pursuing holistic defense work but remain committed to broader efforts to transform our criminal system and our approach to justice in this state and country. Interning with GJP demonstrated just how expansive the “holistic” piece of holistic defense can be—how attorneys and social workers can partner in providing comprehensive support to clients while also working to transform systems more broadly.
On my first day at GJP, I heard that three foundational commitments and values of the organization are to remain holistic, systemic, and optimistic. Atter seeing the ways these values inform and influence GJP’s approach to its work and the culture among its team, I will continue holding these central in my own journey. A holistic approach to supporting clients, combined with a systemic approach to transforming the surrounding conditions and a firm grounding in optimism for a brighter future is a powerful combination. There is a distinct hopefulness I appreciated seeing in each GJP team member, a commitment to struggling against the challenges of today while simultaneously working for a brighter and more compassionate tomorrow.
Not only am I leaving this summer grateful for the opportunities to better understand myself and the work I want to do during and after law school, but as someone who grew up in Atlanta, I am leaving grateful for the ongoing work GJP is doing to support the city and state I love so deeply. I look forward to continue supporting and celebrating GJP’s work from near and far in the years ahead.
Shaun Kleber, 2022 GJP Summer Legal Intern