Alumni Q&A: Powell Fellow Crystal Shin '10 on Being a Child Advocate
Crystal Shin '10 is a Powell Fellow and an attorney with the JustChildren program of the Legal Aid Justice Center in Charlottesville.
Shin is also serving as an adjunct lecturer this year for the University of Virginia School of Law's Child Advocacy Clinic, which is offered in conjunction with JustChildren and teaches students how to represent low-income children facing problems with the education, foster care and juvenile justice systems.
You are a 2010 recipient of the Powell Fellowship and are using that award to work with at-risk youth. What sparked your interest in this area?
I was a Teach For America corps member. I taught the most amazing and resilient fourth-graders at Pinkston Street Elementary School in Henderson, N.C. While teaching, I realized that low-income students like my own needed advocates in every field. My students served as my motivation to transition to law school. It was my hope to work on policy issues in order to impact low-income students on a systemic level.
What are some of the legal issues you are currently involved in?
I handle a variety of cases, but I have mostly worked on special education cases and discipline cases. Typically, special education cases that come through our door are calls from parents who feel that their kids need special education services or parents who believe their kids are not being educated in an appropriate placement. My discipline cases have had very interesting fact patterns, such as a student who was recommended for expulsion for sexting in school.
How did your time at Virginia Law prepare you for your career?
Clinics and pro bono work prepared me for practice. For example, just this week I filed a complaint in circuit court against a school district for expelling a client of mine with no educational services. When I was a 2L, I drafted a similar complaint in a pro bono case I was involved in through the McGuireWoods Child Advocacy Project. I was able to pull up my old complaint and use it as a model.
I would also highly recommend Criminal Investigation with Professor Anne Coughlin if you're interested in criminal work because the subject matter is interesting (and she is awesome). In addition, I would recommend Legislation with Professor Caleb Nelson. The concepts learned in Legislation apply in many other law school classes and in everyday practice.
What advice would you offer to current Virginia Law students interested in similar advocacy?
You should take the Child Advocacy Clinic. Students in this clinic are given a tremendous amount of responsibility. They maintain contact with our clients. They draft the memos and orders. They appear in court. They organize and maintain the files. I supervised the clinic during the 2010-11 school year, and I was lucky to have four driven and passionate students. I would not have been able to take on as many cases without their help. And my students accomplished a lot of great things!
In addition, I would recommend volunteering for the McGuireWoods Child Advocacy Project, as well as seeking out summer positions and winter pro bono opportunities with programs you're interested in. If you're serious about pursuing this type of work after graduation, you have to build connections while you're in law school.
What was one of your favorite Law School classes, and why?
The Criminal Defense Clinic was my favorite class. I was assigned a monstrous case that led to a two-and-a-half hour trial in general district court. My case continued through lunch time, and I remember everyone there for the afternoon docket just sat and stared. Through the clinic experience, I learned how to handle difficult clients, how to communicate effectively with alleged victims, how to work productively with the Commonwealth's attorneys, how to investigate cases and how to master my poker face when I disagreed with the judge's ruling. The defense clinic instructors are incredibly smart and hard-working. The clients are grateful for your help. In fact, I received a thank-you letter from the mother of a former client after a trial I had lost. It was gratifying to know that my clients appreciated my work on their behalf. I would recommend this clinic to any student interested in becoming a litigator.