Southwestern Law School Los Angeles, CA

News Release

November 22, 2010
Alumnae in Criminal Law Share Perspectives on the Legal Profession

Southwestern's Women's Law Association, Trial Advocacy Honors Program and Criminal Law Society recently presented a panel featuring four outstanding alumnae who work (or have worked) in criminal law. They discussed a variety of issues, including how and why they attained their positions, issues of personal safety in trying violent crimes or representing dangerous clients, equality in the workplace for women, how their appearance affects judges and jurors, and advice for those who want to work in criminal law.

The impressive and diverse panel included:

  • Neetu Badhan '02, a Los Angeles County Deputy Public Defender who had also worked briefly for a civil rights nonprofit organization;
  • Alicia Blanco '91, who has worked for the Federal Public Defender's Office since graduating from Southwestern nearly 20 years ago;
  • Shawn Chapman Holley '88, a former Los Angeles County Deputy Public Defender and associate in The Cochran Firm, and now a partner in an entertainment business litigation firm in Santa Monica where she represents high-profile clients;
  • Hon. Karla Kerlin '90, who served in the Los Angeles County District Attorney's Office for 18 years before Gov. Schwarzenegger appointed her to the Los Angeles County Superior Court, where she sits in Department 40, Pretrial Court, overseeing criminal misdemeanors at the downtown Criminal Court Building; and
  • Panel Moderator Deborah Brazil '96, a Los Angeles County Deputy District Attorney in the Major Crimes Division handling high profile murder cases, and a member of Southwestern's adjunct faculty who teaches Trial Advocacy.

Women in Criminal Law Panel

Choosing Criminal Law

Professor Brazil asked the panelists how they got started, and why they chose to work in criminal law, where they would have to deal with a lot of violent crimes and disturbing cases.

Ms. Blanco explained that the Federal Public Defender's Office does not handle violent crimes unless they occurred on federal property, which is pretty rare. "I actually came to law school thinking I was going to be a prosecutor and try violence cases against women and children," she said. "Then I took Criminal Law with Professor Carpenter and Criminal Procedure with Professor Smith, and somewhere in there I did a complete 180-degree turnaround. I worked for the ACLU during my first summer of law school, and then during my second summer, I worked at the Federal Public Defender's Office and never left."

Judge Kerlin had originally wanted to be a public defender but was hired by the District Attorney's Office. She has always been interested in finding the most appropriate solution for a case and said, "It wasn't a huge stretch to see both sides of a case when I became a judge."

Women in Criminal Law PanelNot everyone knew they wanted to work in criminal law. Ms. Chapman Holley began law school with aspirations of becoming a sports agent. "But I got a job in the Public Defender's Office between my second and third year of law school, and it really just changed my life because I saw really important things happening," she said. "There were issues of liberty and the constitution and the 4th Amendment. And I saw a lot of injustice and discrimination and police misconduct. It was very real and very important, and you could make a difference right there in someone's life. It's really powerful to be able to make a difference in someone's life at their most difficult hour."

Personal Safety

Professor Brazil then asked the panelists if they ever felt unsafe while performing their jobs, explaining that she once prosecuted a case where four people were accused of murder, and ten sheriff's deputies surrounded her at the verdict to protect her.

Ms. Badhan said yes. "As a public defender, you're handed your cases and you don't choose," she explained. "Some clients have mental illness that will prevent them from making good decisions, and some are suffering in other ways you can't imagine and have led tortured lives. A courtroom is set up with bailiffs and deputy sheriffs for protection. I use the people around me if I know a client is unsafe. Sometimes I have a bailiff stand behind them."

Judge Kerlin said she is vigilant about her family's safety, especially because in the "age of the Internet, people can find you."

Competing for Respect

Professor Brazil asked the panelists if they ever felt that had to compete with men for the positions they wanted or if they found they had an equal playing field.

Although she has never felt that way in her office, Ms. Blanco said there was an unnerving courtroom incident. "In one of my first trials, I had a judge wink at me. It completely threw me for a moment," she said. "But my biggest obstacle has been my clients, especially when I first started and had clients twice and three times my age."

Judge Kerlin said that the biggest issue she had during her prosecutor days was with jurors. She said, "Sometimes you have older jurors who watch a lot of court T.V. shows. Sometimes if you have to 'go for blood' when cross-examining a witness, they may get turned off by that, and you don't want to alienate them."

Ms. Badhan said a judge once badgered her on an issue and then asked her if she was married. "I'm sure he didn't ask young male attorneys that question," she said.

But women working in criminal law may also occasionally have an edge, Professor Brazil explained. "I think as a female I have an advantage because I can be soft, empathetic and friendly but be [tough] when I need to," she said.

Yet, some female attorneys are competitive with each other in a way that is much more inappropriate. "I have experienced some competitiveness with opposing counsel who are female," Ms. Badhan said. "And sometimes it gets personal - on their side - which I don't do."

Women in Criminal Law PanelJudge Kerlin said there are some wonderful women who will form a network with you and be advisors, and then there are women who are not mentors to other women. Sometimes it is because they are very competitive, but sometimes this is because they are older and feel that they made it in a man's world so why should they help you. "We all need to be helpful to each other and build each other up," she said.

It is never too early to start mentoring people, Professor Brazil said. She suggested that second and third-year law students should help first year students they see struggling, which will benefit the students in need while building the self-respect of those who help.

Dress the Part

Professor Brazil then asked the panel if they have noticed young female attorneys making mistakes that they would advise them to change, and provided an example: "In my own observation, I see some young lawyers who confuse nightclub attire with work attire. There are very few women at the top of the pyramid. You want to be taken seriously... Don't dress to distract from your professionalism. Your judgment will be in question."

Ms. Chapman Holley explained that within months of joining The Cochran Firm, the O.J. Simpson case came along and there was going to be a meeting. When she realized she was dressed too casually, she went home and changed because it was important to make a good first impression. Judge Kerlin concurred, saying women sometimes dress too provocatively or too casually, and that is a mistake. The panelists uniformly agreed that appropriateness of dress and demeanor is what the public has a right to expect of you. They have a right to anticipate that a profession as honorable as the law be upheld to a certain standard.

But sometimes women are unfairly judged, even when they are dressed professionally. Judge Kerlin said she supervised a case that a "baby D.A." (novice prosecutor) lost, and the jury told her that they were distracted because of the prosecutor's ill-fitting shoes.

The panelists asserted that there are older judges who have an antiquated notion of how a woman should dress, so most make sure they wear skirts (of an appropriate length), only sometimes donning a pantsuit several days into a trial. Judge Kerlin emphasized that most women jurors expect women lawyers to be in a skirt suit.

Sound Advice

Ms. Blanco said learning from your mistakes will make you a better lawyer. Professor Brazil concurred, "You are a product of many life experiences, even if you're relatively young," she said. "Law is a complement to all that you already are as a human being."

Judge Kerlin and Ms. Blanco said that no matter what profession you choose, you have to love it, especially as attorneys who spend a lot of time working.

Ms. Badhan said, "Be open to possibilities. I always wanted to be a prosecutor, but I learned so much by opening my eyes to other possibilities. Be open to how much you have to offer the world."

Ms. Chapman Holley said. "Always be prepared. And just be yourself."

Professor Brazil said, "Listen. You learn so much more as a lawyer when you listen to other people, not only with your ears but also with your heart. I'm not over-sentimental, but that has helped me to be more effective as a lawyer."