The Making of a Public Defender
Maggie Birkel will graduate from the University of Virginia School of Law on May 20 having already experienced the full docket of a busy public defender.
Birkel worked for the Colorado State Public Defenders office the summer after her second year under a student practice license. She had three cases go to jury trials, prepped two others for potential jury trials and managed a docket of more than 50 cases.
One of her first clients who went to trial had been charged with a theft that amounted to about $100 in value. Although the alleged crime was a misdemeanor, the defendant potentially faced years in prison due to the additional parole violation a guilty verdict would carry.
Being represented by an inexperienced lawyer, and feeling that the system was stacked against her, the client fully expected to lose her case.
“[When] we got that verdict from the jury that she was not guilty, she was in honest shock that the system had worked,” Birkel said. “That’s why I wanted to become a lawyer. I’ll hold that with me forever.”
As a fellow with the Program in Law and Public Service at UVA Law, Birkel added academic focus to her passion for social justice. The program is designed to provide a select group of students the opportunity to receive a tailored curriculum and mentoring that will prepare them for public service careers.
As part of her hands-on course work, she participated in the Innocence Project Clinic and the Criminal Defense Clinic. After working with the Innocence Project Clinic during her second year, she took a position as a team leader for the Student Pro Bono Clinic to continue working on innocence cases.
Birkel participated in student organizations such as the Virginia Law in Prison Project. As a first-year representative and then co-president her second and third years, she advocated for criminal justice reform and against mass incarceration. She visited local prisons with other activists to push for improvements in conditions for prisoners.
She also held positions as a co-head Peer Advisor, an outreach chair for the Law and Public Service Board and a member of the Virginia Journal of Social Policy & the Law. She is the recipient of the Class of 1953 Scholarship for each of her three years at the Law School, and is a Class of 2018 agent for annual giving.
Birkel knew she wanted to do public interest work when she entered law school.
After graduating from Northwestern University in 2012 with a dual major in history and gender studies, Birkel moved to New Orleans to work at a residential facility for women leaving sex work. There, she met public defenders who made an impact on her.
“All of my clients at the residential facility had been in and out of the criminal justice system throughout their lives,” she said. “And their public defenders were the people who really had their backs and were pulling them out of that cycle.”
Birkel credits those public defenders with advising her about whether to go to law school, when to go and where.
When she took that step, she chose her mother’s alma mater, UVA Law. Margaret Ann Brown ’77, a “double ’Hoo,” received her B.A. in 1974 as part of the first UVA undergraduate class to admit women.
“I didn’t come here for college, which broke her heart,” Birkel said. “She loves that I’m here now.”
Birkel did not narrow her focus to public defense until her first summer job working in the Orleans Public Defenders office. She assisted the public defenders preparing their cases, and she often spent long hours in the New Orleans jail, waiting to see clients on behalf of her colleagues.
“The New Orleans jail is notorious for the long wait times to see your clients,” she said. “A lot of the attorneys don’t have time to sit there and wait and wait and wait to see their clients and update them on their cases. But that relationship-building is so pivotal to having your case go well for that client.”
After graduation, Birkel will move to Tulsa, Oklahoma, to start a fellowship with Still She Rises, the first public defender office in the country that focuses exclusively on representing mothers in the criminal justice system. She will take on a combination of criminal defense, parental rights defense, impact litigation and policy work.
According to the MacArthur Foundation, women are the fastest growing prison population in America. Birkel sees addressing this trend as a means for building criminal justice reform for all.
“In some ways [women are] a more sympathetic population to people who otherwise might not be as open to criminal justice reform,” Birkel said. “I think if we can open peoples’ eyes up to that population, we can expand and really make some changes for the entire criminal justice population — change which America sorely needs.”
Criminal justice reform is a massive endeavor involving institutional reform, but Birkel realizes that every relationship she builds will play a role in that larger story.
“There’s really nothing quite like somebody who’s going through one of the hardest things they’ve ever gone through in their life opening up to you and letting you be a part of processing through that and getting through that,” she said. “For me, it’s always been about the clients. I love being able to continue to build relationships.”