Perspective of a Junior Associate: How Pro Bono Work Enhances Practice

For two-and-a-half years, I had the unique opportunity to work with a team of junior associates and partners on a Section 1983 pro bono case in the Northern District of California. Our client alleged he was falsely arrested in 2016 on an accessory-to-murder charge and spent three-and-a-half months in jail for a crime he did not commit. The defendant, a seasoned Walnut Creek Police Department detective, represented to a judicial officer that he had GPS data showing our client and the murder suspect’s phone GPS locations mirroring each other. After reviewing the case file, it became obvious that he did not have GPS data, only cell site location data, a much-less-accurate form of location information.

As a junior associate with no expertise in cell site analysis, I was tasked to challenge a digital forensics expert with over 15 years of experience on his conclusions made during my client’s investigation. Unlike mock depositions, this was a real case, involving real people, with real potential consequences. I learned how to prepare for a deposition both substantively and logistically, use exhibits, think quickly on my feet, and actively listen to a deponent’s responses. But the most valuable lesson came from a mid-level associate who coached me to purposefully pause, think, and reframe in order to maintain my composure and confidence so I could craft better questions and elicit better responses from my deponent.

A year later, the defendant detective moved for summary judgment. With two weeks to prepare, the partners entrusted me and three other junior associates to write the opposition to the motion, a task we had little experience with. After several rounds of edits and guidance from the partners, we filed an opposition brief we were proud of. The partners then let us know that we would also be arguing this motion before Judge Gonzales Rogers. None of us had ever argued a motion in federal court before, or any court for that matter, but I realized how fortunate I was as a junior attorney to have the opportunity to argue a motion I drafted in federal court. Getting on my feet and arguing before a judge was an invaluable experience.

Finally, as third-year associates, our pro bono case was going to trial. Looking back, I learned more in the months preparing for trial and during the trial than I could have imagined. I directly examined and defended a key witness, our client’s fiancée, and gained understanding of our client’s experience and the impact the arrest and subsequent incarceration had on him and his family. The partners taught me and my teammates how to prepare for a trialsetting up a war room, immersing ourselves in filings, and learning all the case details no matter how small.

Overall, I feel lucky to have had substantive learning experiences at the beginning of my career. If you had told me, during my first year of law school, that I would be taking depositions and speaking before a court during my first three years of practice, I wouldn’t have believed you. My advice to the incoming classes of associates would be to get involved in a pro bono case where you can write motions, defend depositions, or argue in court, because there is no substitute for hands-on, practical experience.

Written by Janelle Li-A-Ping, Associate Winston & Strawn, LLP