Nellie Black ’20 Goes From Classroom to Courtroom
Update: This “Star Witness” was completed before the school moved to online teaching.
A pivotal moment in third-year University of Virginia School of Law student Nellie Black’s budding legal career was prosecuting, and helping the commonwealth of Virginia win, a felony sexual assault case in court.
In our occasional series “Star Witness,” Black, who had been on the path to becoming a scientist in her undergraduate years, discussed how her yearning for legal reform fueled her interest in law school and criminal justice.
At UVA Law, Black has been on the Trial Advocacy Team, articles development editor for the Virginia Journal of Criminal Law, a Legal Writing Fellow for the first-year Legal Research and Writing Program and a Prosecution Clinic participant. As a first-year law student, she volunteered through the Civil Rights Litigation Pro Bono Clinic before it became a class and interned at the Office of General Counsel for the Richmond Police Department. As a 2L, she interned with the Commonwealth Attorney’s Office for the city of Richmond.
The Ontario, New York, native earned a B.A. in biology, with minors in sociology and legal studies from the State University of New York at Geneseo.
Tell us something about your life before law school.
Before law school, I grew up in the small town of Ontario, New York, which is about 30 minutes outside of Rochester, and played a lot of softball. In high school, I was the starting pitcher for our varsity softball team and my senior year I threw over 100 strikeouts, an achievement that my dad still loves to brag about when he runs into someone he knows at the grocery store. I didn’t realize that softball was such a big part of the community at UVA until after I decided to come here, but the amount of bonding that happens on the UVA softball fields has really made me feel at home.
Why law school?
As much as I wish I could say I’ve wanted to be a lawyer since I was a kid, my path to law school was actually pretty unusual. Going into college, I wasn’t really sure what I wanted to pursue as a career. Everyone told me that I should study something I liked, and in high school, that was science, so my undergraduate degree is in biology. However, once I got to college, I realized pretty quickly that despite loving to learn about science, I wasn’t feeling passionate about a career in that field. I’ve always been driven to help people, and I think that comes in large part from my mom. She’s the kindest person I’ve ever met, and growing up, there weren’t many things emphasized in our house as much as how important it was to have empathy and compassion for others. Having a job where I feel like I’m doing good for others has always been important to me, and based on my interests at the time, I didn’t feel like I was going to get that from the path I was on, so I decided I needed to change gears.
Still, law school had always been in the back of my mind because of a teacher I had in high school. He’d always tell me how I talked “like a lawyer,” and he really challenged me to be a critical thinker and writer before I even got to college. I never thought about it too seriously because I don’t have any lawyers in my family, and I hadn’t really been exposed to the law. During my sophomore year of college, I joined the mock trial team and, around the same time, took a political science class where we read “The New Jim Crow” by Michelle Alexander. Reading “The New Jim Crow” really changed my life and sparked a passion that I have been energized about ever since — the criminal justice system. Joining the mock trial team and reading that book set the wheels in motion for the path that I’m on now — pursuing a career working within the criminal justice system as a prosecutor. I truly believed then (and I still do now) that prosecutors have an important and powerful role to play in fixing the broken parts of our system, and I’ve been working towards pursuing that passion ever since.
Tell us more about your experiences with the Prosecution Clinic.
I can’t say enough about how integral the Prosecution Clinic has been to my law school experience. Learning about criminal procedure and evidence in law school is one thing, but it’s an entirely different experience to get to put those skills to work in a courtroom, standing in front of a judge or a jury.
One of the most rewarding experiences I’ve had through the clinic is a trial that I worked on recently. I was the second-chair prosecutor on a felony sexual assault jury trial in Nelson County Circuit Court, where the defendant was facing a pretty serious set of charges. During the trial I gave the opening statement, presented direct examinations for five witnesses and responded to the defense’s motion to strike after the commonwealth’s case-in-chief [the portion of a trial where the prosecution presents its evidence]. To be so involved in a case of that nature before even graduating law school was an incredibly humbling experience and made me feel really proud of how hard I’ve worked and how far I’ve come. It was an honor to not only be able to participate but also to win one of my first jury trials and get justice for a victim that suffered through such a traumatic experience. Looking back on myself even five years ago, it would have terrified me to stand up in front of 12 community members and a judge and say anything — let alone give a legal argument. But, a few weeks ago, it was something that after a lot of preparation and practice, I was able to do confidently. I owe that confidence to my internship over the summer as well as my clinical experience at UVA. I’m so grateful for the opportunities I’ve had to learn and grow as a litigator over the past year.
What have you learned in the clinic that you can take into your legal career?
My experiences in the clinic have taught me a lot about the basics of Virginia criminal law. I’ve handled everything from traffic infractions to felonies, and I think that having that base knowledge of the elements of so many different crimes, and the basics of Virginia criminal procedure, is going to be invaluable to me as I begin my career.
I think the most valuable thing I will be taking with me into my legal career is humility. There’s a lot of talk about how powerful prosecutors are because of their discretion, and that’s absolutely true. The weight of the responsibility that comes with that discretion is something I take very seriously and something that I feel every single day. It’s one thing to talk in a classroom about the benefits and drawbacks of prosecutors having that power and a different thing entirely to be the one standing in court with a judge asking you what you want to do with a case and recognizing that whatever you decide will change someone’s life, whether it be a victim or a defendant. It’s the reality of what prosecutors do day in and day out. Having been in the position to make those decisions myself, I just feel humbled by it. It’s humbling for me to exercise that discretion whether I have a traffic case that is going to affect someone’s car insurance rates or a felony case that is going to result in incarceration and deprive someone of their liberty. At the end of the day, prosecutors represent the community, and while a lot of power and responsibility comes with the discretion that they are given, it’s been empowering and encouraging to see how much good can be done with that power. That humility is the most important thing I’ll take with me into my legal career, and a perspective that I hope to never lose sight of.
What’s next for you?
I’ll be returning to the city of Richmond Commonwealth Attorney’s Office with a Kennedy Fellowship.
Founded in 1819, the University of Virginia School of Law is the second-oldest continuously operating law school in the nation. Consistently ranked among the top law schools, Virginia is a world-renowned training ground for distinguished lawyers and public servants, instilling in them a commitment to leadership, integrity and community service.