Public Defender Agency
Dougal Neralich is working at the Public Defender Agency, pursuing his passion for criminal law and defending marginalized and underrepresented populations.
July 1, 2013
I was fortunate enough to spend this beautiful summer in Anchorage, working for the Public Defender Agency and the time has simply flown by. I work with three accomplished and driven interns, all of whom love what they are doing as much as I do, and we are supervised and aided not only by our point person, but by every single attorney in our office, each of whom takes time out of their hectic day to make sure we have everything that we need. It would seem that Alaska's distance from the lower 48 breeds a certain camaraderie that people in Anchorage do not take lightly.
I began my adventure in late May, after the long and beautiful drive north into the wilds of Alaska, and was immediately thrown a curve ball that made my stomach sink. I learned that I was to be the only intern doing jail court, in-custody and out of custody bail hearings, changes of plea, and operating without a license (OWL) court, and I was going to start doing it on day one.
Jail court is a unique place. Anchorage public defenders (and I imagine this is ubiquitous across all jurisdictions) are given a mountain of files every morning before they venture down to the Anchorage jail where prisoners are hauled from their cells and taken to a large room that is half pristine courtroom and half concrete box with guards and uncomfortable-looking benches. Several layers of Plexiglas are all that divide this split room, but the difference is night and day.
On my first day I followed my supervisor around to the backside of the concrete portion of the room, the side where everyone is wearing matching jumpsuits and handcuffs, into a dark hallway with windows and a guard station. I watched as the attorney picked up the first file, called the name, waited as one of the inmates shuffled up to the window, and then reviewed the file — for the first time, in the presence of the detainee — broke down the accused’s rights, summed up what was about to happen once their name was called by the judge, asked if there were any questions, and then placed the file face down, simultaneously reaching for the next folder. The next thing I knew, I was trotting along behind him once again, this time into the courtroom. My supervisor placed the mountain of files on the desk, waited for it to be his turn, walked to the podium, and began to expertly argue bail reduction with the State representative, seamlessly articulating all of those arguments that I had reviewed in my mind seemingly moments before, but in such a way that I found myself entranced.
In no time the mountain was reduced to a molehill, and then it was gone, some losses, some wins, and we were walking away from the jail. I was awestruck. My reverie lasted until we reached the car where my supervisor turned to me and asked, "Did you like that?" To which I nodded my head enthusiastically. He responded with a smile, "Good, because tomorrow you're doing it."
That was over a month ago. I was thrust into the Anchorage District Court judicial system after less than 24 hours of experience and I have never looked back. I have had wonderful coaching and encouragement. When I have erred it has been discussed with me at length in a manner that was fair and even and never accusatory. I have learned as much in this last month as I did in two years of law school and each day I finish my work a wiser and better advocate. I have seen people in every walk of life from all manner of backgrounds come through the courthouse doors and, amazingly, I have seen overworked Anchorage public defenders and assistant district attorneys work together to deliver incredibly fair and even handed arguments about each individual case to find the proper resolution. On the micro level, at least in Anchorage, justice is working.
I am honored to be associated with such outstanding professionals, and I strive every day to model myself after their noble work. I cannot wait to see what might happen tomorrow.
Aug. 12, 2013
As I wind down my summer in Anchorage, Alaska I take pause to reflect on what I have gained from my experiences, and where I go from here.
I was lucky enough to spend my summer working as an intern for the criminal division of the Public Defender Agency in Anchorage. I can unequivocally say that this is what I want to do. I want to be a Public Defender. I find comfort in writing that, but the real question is why.
I began my summer by being cast into daily madness of what is affectionately referred to by public defenders as "jail court," a fast-paced, multi-client daily effort to release people from short-term incarceration. I quickly realized that school and practice are very different things, but that when legal argument was necessary, it was there my schooling had stuck. Over the summer, as my duties increased so did my skill. I became able to form complex and persuading legal argument within the bounds of the law, and learned how to conduct myself in front of angry or scared clients and serious judges.
But I also learned that the law that I respect so much has quite an impact outside of the books that taught it to me, very real and life-altering effects. The law applied is something to be taken extremely seriously and I grew to respect it as more than an educational pursuit.
My goal at the outset of this summer was simply to see if I was cut out for criminal law. I can easily say that it was a modest goal, and one quickly met. I soon learned that I not only wanted to practice criminal law, but I wanted to do it as a public servant, I wanted to be a public defender.
Before law school I lived in Colorado for seven years, a state I came to love for its glorious mountains and active people. Having spent the summer in Anchorage, I realize that Alaska is like Colorado magnified to the extreme. The scale is larger, the nature grander, the animals wilder, and the people are amazing. Despite the size of the state, the legal community is small and tightly knit in Anchorage. Both sides of the aisle, public defenders and district attorneys, work together with and within the law to reach what they all believe to be a just result.
As an intern I was allowed to second chair two trials, trials that determined the lives and freedom of the people within them. It was an extreme and serious lesson to know that what I did mattered, really mattered to someone’s future, someone who could not afford to hire someone to protect them. In both of my trials I was allowed to argue for my clients, and in both trials I felt more nervous and excited about what I was doing than I ever had in any job, ever before. It wasn't just that I did well in my trials, it was that I was making a difference that made an impact on me.
I learned a lot of practical things over this summer, but the most important thing that I learned was that I can make a difference, a big difference, every day, to people that need help. I not only want to be a public defender, but I believe that I will likely be returning to Alaska to practice, a state filled with a large population of people who need help. Help I can give them.