Joy, thanks so much for your willingness to chat with us. Could you help us understand what it is that you do and how you came to be doing it?
I work as a lawyer for the State of Illinois in the Office of the State Appellate Defender. I do Criminal Defense review. Before I went to law school though, I wouldn't have known what that meant. Basically, if you're charged with a crime, you have a right to an attorney. If you go to trial and you can't afford an attorney, you're appointed a public defender. If you lose that trial and you appeal, then you can go to the Appellate Court. Again, in Illinois, you have a right to an attorney. If you can't afford an attorney, then the court will appoint the state's appellate defender. There's one appellate defender in the state and then a whole bunch of us who work in the Office of the State Appellate Defender as assistant appellate defenders. I do criminal defense review — appeals on behalf of criminals. I serve people who have been convicted of crimes at the trial court and are appealing.
How did I get into this? This is a second career for me. I always wanted a PhD, but by the time I had finished one in philosophy, I had enough teaching experience to know that I didn't really like teaching. I considered law school and talked to a few lawyers while I was trying to decide what I wanted to do. I asked, "Is law a good place for introverts? What would an introvert do in law?" One very helpful response was, "You might like appeals because appeals are almost all written." My first internship was working for an appellate court judge, and my second internship was working for the Office of the State Appellate Defender in a different district, basically doing the same work I do now.
What do you enjoy about your work?
I do like that it's very introvert-appropriate. It's quiet and studious work. I like that there's always something new to learn. I like writing, and I like the fact that there's this product that comes out of it. For a typical client, I read through all of the transcripts from the trial — I'm looking for mistakes. I write an argumentative paper, typically 25 to 50 pages. It explains: "This is what went wrong in our client's case. This is how we think it should be remedied." It's a lot like what I did all the way through school — learn something, figure it out, and then write a paper about it. Also what I like is that when I write this paper, when I write this brief, it goes into a brief bank so my colleagues, if they have a similar case, can read my brief and use it. When I get a new case, I can search the brief bank and find those my colleagues have written. So there's this written product, but I also like that I don't just give it to the court. If I lose, it's not wasted work; instead, I'm contributing also the work of the office and, in some sense, this can be durable product.
One of the things your poster from Faculty Camp illustrates is how your life in Christ affects the way that you think about what you do.
As I’ve thought about this, I realize there are also a lot of ways that my work affects how I think about being a Christian. When I was looking for work, I had a group of people who were praying for me — specifically, that I would find a job I’d enjoy, that would use my skills and pay my bills, and allow me to serve God and other people. One reason God might call people to my field is this — some of my clients are in prison. Few care about prisoners. Jesus talked about humanity being divided into two groups at his return. About one group he said, “I was hungry and you gave me something to eat. I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink. I was a stranger and you invited me in. I needed clothes and you clothed me. I was sick and you looked after me. I was in prison and you came to visit me. I tell you the truth, whatever you did to the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.” The work I'm doing is, in a lot of ways, for the least of these. They are prisoners and they are people God cares about. He cares about justice.
I really like to pray for my clients. At least every other week, I get together with a colleague and we pray. I keep a sheet of paper at my desk with a number of things on it. At the top is “Why should I care about these clients? Luke 2:27-30.” This reads, “I tell you love your enemies. Be good to those who hate you. Bless those who curse you and pray for those who mistreat you.” When I was thinking about whether I wanted to go to law school, an attorney said, "You should go to your local courthouse and just hang out and see what happens there." I took a friend along with me and we went. We sat in this courtroom. At the time, I couldn't really tell you what was going on but, looking back, it was a criminal law courtroom. The judge and the two lawyers in the front of the courtroom were all women. Men in orange jumpsuits were let in, some of them shackled. As part of their guilty plea, the state's attorney, the prosecutor, had to read what's called the factual basis — basically, what's the evidence against this person for the crime that he’s charged with? It was read before the whole court — horrible things these men had done to their wives and their girlfriends. I remember thinking if I were one of the women up there in front of the courtroom, I would turn around and hit them! The defense attorney was so patient with them. She explained things very carefully. She was kind and very respectful. The men had not been — they had failed to treat others with respect, and women in particular. She was treating them like human beings who deserved respect. It was so impressive to me. It was really a picture of “loving your enemies.” I really do feel convicted to love my enemies by praying for them.
Joy with her poster about how her faith informs her work at Midwest Faculty Camp.
Sometimes when doing my daily work advocating for my clients, I stop and think, “I need an advocate.” Because I'm guilty. Romans 5:6-8 says, “You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly.Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die.But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” My clients may not be guilty of precisely what they were convicted of, but they're not exactly innocent either. It helps me to remember that, like me, they need an advocate not because they're innocent, but because they're guilty.
And then another place of influence is the concept of judgment. It has become very real to me. I don’t hear a lot of preaching about judgment. When I was in law school, I was in a family law courtroom with lots of people in it. It was a hearing for a couple who’d had a child out of wedlock. The mother, who was about my age and was caring for the child, was there to get an increase in child support. The father, a wealthy doctor, was there, too. As part of the hearing, this young woman was on the stand telling how they conceived this child, in an effort to show that the father was just as much responsible for the conception as she was. I witnessed the reality of people needing to account for things they’d “done in secret” — the idea of judgment and that I'll be held accountable for things that I do, even things that I feel like I got away with at the moment or whatever. It became real to me.
I'm very much a perfectionist and susceptible to getting caught up in what Robert McGee calls “the performance trap.” I have to do everything right. It is important to me, therefore, to focus on my worth apart from my performance. To paraphrase McGee in The Search for Significance — Christ gave his life for me and, therefore, I have great value. I'm deeply loved. I'm fully pleasing. I'm totally forgiven. I'm accepted. That gives a lot of grace to me. Sometimes I just find it really hard to believe that my performance doesn't matter. It's helpful to me to work with people who — a lot of them — did some really awful, ugly things. I believe that if they're Christian, whatever they've done, they're loved. They're fully pleasing. They're totally forgiven. They're accepted and they're complete in Christ. Biblically, I have to believe that about them. If I can believe that someone else can be forgiven, then I can believe that I can be forgiven.
There's very little performance that these folks are going to be able to do to earn anything that impresses others. That seems like it turns the performance trap on its head.
I'm curious — what would you like Christians to understand about your field? How is your work relevant to others?
In addition to the things I have already mentioned, there are pragmatic reasons to keep people from being in prison for so long. It is very costly. It's also true from what I see — the vast majority of my clients are African-American men — that there is a pattern. In poor neighborhoods that tend to have a lot of crime and a lot of drug-dealing, clients are more likely to be prosecuted for those crimes than people elsewhere. Evidently, the drug offenses on college campuses are pretty similar, but a kid on a college campus is much less likely to be arrested and then end up with a significant penalty. Those thought to be “good kids” get a lot of grace. A lot of our clients get very little. It really is true that there are significant inequalities in how the justice system is applied. I think it is important for Christians to understand this.
Yes. You are literally giving grace and also pushing for justice to be done where it needs to be done.
We have law students (and potential law students) reading as they think through what particular aspect of law is going to get their attention and their energy. It's no surprise to you, I'm sure, but so many students are choosing what they will do based on the paycheck they expect to get. Not necessarily the way it will enable them to love and serve God and others.
It was important to me to go to an affordable law school in order to be able to afford to not take a high-paying job. Otherwise, you go to school and rack up so much debt that you have to look for a high-paying job. I was hoping to do public service work when I finished. I might not be able to afford doing what I do if I had gone to an expensive school.
You know our audience at The Well — women in graduate or professional programs or on faculty somewhere or working in various fields. Anything else you'd like to say to this audience about your work, or any words of wisdom?
I've been a student most of my adult life, and I am still learning about grace. As a grad student, I had to learn about grace. When I felt like I was failing or I was disappointing my advisor or whatever. It's even harder now. As a student if I failed, I was really the only one who suffered. My advisor might be disappointed, but it didn't really go beyond that. Now someone's paying me taxpayer money, and people are in prison depending on me — it's hard. I'm trying to learn to give grace to myself even when people around me aren't giving it to me.
So many of us resonated with what Francis Su said at Faculty Camp about grace. The gospel pushes against the idols of achievement and performance, reminding us that our dignity and value doesn’t come from our accomplishments and, therefore, isn’t threatened by our sense of success or failure. Grace leads to all kinds of freedom. And, as Francis said, “Freedom is good news to the academy.”
Thanks for sharing your story with us, Joy!