Gaining the Tools To Make a Difference
Aparna Datta’s path to becoming a lawyer began thousands of miles away, on trips to visit family in India. By the time she was 9, she started to notice the profound poverty in her parents’ native country. But she soon realized inequity and need weren’t limited to her journeys abroad — she found it even in her hometown of College Station, Texas.
“You do notice all these other systemic, big issues and inequalities,” said the third-year University of Virginia School of Law student. “There are still so many problems and so many people in need.”
That’s when the idea to go to law school — to make a difference — started to percolate, the decision sealed by a high school government class in which she learned how activists have helped change laws and minds. Later, in her final semester at the University of Texas, where she majored in government and economics, she interned at the Center for American Progress. There, she heard the refrain that a J.D. can open doors, reaffirming her decision to pursue law.
“I just thought that going to law school would give me the tools necessary to one day advocate on behalf of people who need it,” she said.
Datta is set to graduate May 19 with those tools in her belt. After that, she will clerk for a year with Judge Carlton Reeves ’89 of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Mississippi, then work for Williams & Connolly in Washington, D.C.
“I could honestly not have asked for a better law school experience,” she said. “Overall it’s been such a blessing and privilege to attend this law school, and I think that’s a real testament to the student body and faculty and staff here.”
At UVA, Datta embraced a number of roles, serving as managing editor of the Virginia Law Review, a member of the Extramural Moot Court team, and a senator and Diversity Committee chair for the Student Bar Association. She also became a member of the Raven Society and a recipient of the Mary Claiborne and Roy H. Ritter Prize, given to students who best exemplify the qualities of honor, character and integrity envisioned by Thomas Jefferson when he founded the University of Virginia.
During her first-year summer she returned to Texas to work on domestic violence and family violence cases in Brazos County’s District Attorney’s Office.
“I was helping with things they needed help with to make sure they could properly prosecute a child molester,” she said. “I felt like we were doing something that was good for the community.”
The next summer she interned for Williams & Connolly, where she assisted the pro bono defense of a Blackwater Security Consulting employee in a murder trial.
“I was lucky to be assigned to the case because they were going to trial in two weeks,” she said. She spent the summer working on the high-profile case.
The firm’s dedication to pro bono work attracted her to work there full time.
“They have a lot of opportunities for people to do pro bono work, so even though I’ll be working at a firm, I’ll be able to help indigent clients as well,” she said. She has been dedicated since before law school to civil rights, racial justice and voting rights issues.
Datta praised the value of going to school in the kind of place where a professor knows your name by the second day of school. Female faculty members in particular helped her succeed. She recalled debating whether to get further involved in an activity when her interest was lacking, and Professor Molly Brady advised her, “‘You have to learn to be comfortable saying ‘no’ sometimes.’”
“She’s been a really great mentor throughout law school,” Datta said.
Along the way, courses in regulating the political process, religious liberty, state and local government, and asylum law, and the Immigration Law Clinic influenced her development as a lawyer and a thinker.
On top of the rigorous academic environment, Datta said, she has enjoyed experiencing a true bond with her peers.
“That sense of collegiality is really evident here,” she said. “It’s not some recruiting tactic, it’s actually genuine.”
She met Reeves at an American Constitution Society convention, and soon decided — if it worked out — to clerk before joining the firm.
“His jurisprudence is exactly what I agree with,” she said. “He just has a really strong moral compass, but he also understands even if the outcome isn’t what you want it to be, you have to follow what the Constitution says and what the law says.”
When she graduates, she will be the first lawyer in a family of engineers. Her father, an electrical engineering professor at Texas A&M University, once dreamed of being an attorney, inspired by a years-long property dispute involving his family that reached the Supreme Court of India, which still remains in limbo.
Datta said if the case continues, she won’t be the one to advocate for it. She will have plenty to do stateside.
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