On the Same Page: First-Year Students Read ‘Just Mercy’
Incoming first-year students come from varied backgrounds, have different class schedules and career goals, but they were all on the same page their first evening of Orientation. Over dinner, students delved into discussions about the memoir Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson, one of their orientation assignments.
The book’s message and accounts of Stevenson’s journey as a lawyer aligns with the college’s professional identity formation initiative, said Kendall Kerew, clinical assistant professor and director of the Externship Program. Reading the book prior to Orientation also helped foster a sense of community among the incoming students.
“Our hope is that students will begin thinking about what it means to be a lawyer from day one,” said Kerew, who compiled the discussion questions. The book discussion, Kerew said, was a way to advance students’ thinking about the values of the legal profession and its service-oriented nature.
“The book examines one lawyer’s quest to discover his professional identity, and underscores the necessity of being engaged and finding meaning in what you do,” Kerew said.
Having conversations from day one encourages students to think about their own professional identity formation over the course of three years rather than just before graduation, Kerew said.
Alessandra Palazzolo (J.D. ’20) said reading Just Mercy before entering law school, where students initially focus on the basics and technicalities of the law, served as a reminder that behind each case is a human being.
“The book did a good job of demonstrating that professionalism doesn’t just mean doing the job, but also remembering the humanity of the law,” she said.
She was pleased that the book choice seemed to highlight the university’s and College of Law’s principles. “It made me really excited to start learning here, because they want lawyers who are socially conscious and not just looking to make money,” Palazzolo said.
Faculty, alumni and other members of the Atlanta legal community volunteered to lead the 16 discussions groups, asking questions such as what role should mercy play in the way lawyers respond to those who have committed crimes? Can you be close enough to do a good job representing your clients, even if you dislike or disbelieve them? Has there been a time where your personal experience or values have conflicted with your notions of justice?
Mariam Slaibi (J.D. ’20) said she was profoundly impacted by some of the discussions in her group. “It was a great reminder not to lose perspective,” she said. “The law is not just words; the law changes people’s lives for the better or the worse. We must be very careful as attorneys to not forget the goal of working to improve the lives of others.”
Slaibi, whose interest is in human rights law, said the book made her think about what it means to be a lawyer. One of Stevenson’s stories about a client who requested photos of himself really made an impact. “What touched me most about the client’s letter is that it had nothing to do with the law or Mr. Stevenson’s work as an attorney,” she said.
For those who are imprisoned, a lawyer may be the only contact with the outside world, she said. “As an inmate in solitary confinement, one kind gesture from his attorney would likely linger with [Stevenson’s client] for an extended period of time.”
In one discussion topic, students talked about personal experiences with profiling. In the book, Stevenson, the founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative, shared an incident in which he was racially profiled, and how that impacted how he represented his clients.
“I think it was eye opening for some students and for others, it echoed their personal experiences ,” Kerew said.
Palazzolo agrees. “The book was a good opportunity for those who haven’t been exposed to a lifestyle or some sort of hardship to remember that just because somebody is in a bad place doesn’t necessarily mean they are a bad person—behind every story there is a lot that you may not see,” she said.
Highlighting how the system can fail if all parties are not doing what is right and required of them was an important part of the book, said Lisamarie Bristol (J.D. ’09), a prosecutor and former public defender who led one of the groups.
“Fortunately, I have seen firsthand how well it can and does work when everyone involved is concerned with seeking justice,” Bristol said. “We were able to discuss alternative options for helping others, such as pro bono or public interest work in the areas of elder law, health law, tax law and wills/estate planning. It was encouraging to hear them considering other ways to give back to the community, such as various clinics and externships.”
Just Mercy also challenges students to think outside of just learning the law, said Niaa Daniels (J.D. ’15), who led another group. It also exposes them to concepts and other areas of the law they may not have otherwise considered as an avenue to help others.
“Stevenson challenges the reader to think about how he or she can use his or her gifts paired with formal legal training to truly make a difference. I personally think it is easy for law students and attorneys to forget that being an attorney is a privilege,” Daniels said. “According to the American Bar Association, there is one attorney for every 300 people, and out of all the practicing attorneys in the United States, 5 percent are black and only 3 percent Hispanic. This book highlights how unique and special we are to be a part of the profession, and equally amplifies our duty to use our platform for good.”
Daniels, who externed with the Georgia Innocence Project, said one important message in the book is underscoring how people’s lives can be unjustly disrupted in an instant, yet take a lifetime to restore.
“It was a reminder for me to always do justice and to hold myself and colleagues accountable no matter how unpopular the notion. For my actions as a person, a lawyer and especially a prosecutor has a powerful impact to affect many lives,” Daniels said.
Allowing students the opportunity to express their differing views on the book is important, Daniels said. “Everyone has a voice, everyone brings something to the table, and the defects in the criminal justice system and society in general will not change unless everyone gets involved,” she said.
That diversity of perspective is part of Georgia State’s strength, said Joshua Schiffer (J.D. ’02), and he hopes that sharing his own experiences helps students realize that not every lawyer follows the same road.
“I do not fit what many folks think of when they enter law school. I made a career of not fitting in the box while struggling on the path,” he said. “You can be an outlier and still find satisfaction as well as success.”
Practicing law can be an intensely intimate experience, Schiffer said, and Just Mercy illustrates how lawyers can affect someone’s life in a profound way. “Just Mercy shows how we all, with just our bar numbers and some effort, can deeply benefit the life of another person,” he said. “This book inspires folks to think nationally by acting locally, and I really like that ethic.”
Just Mercy is the university’s pick for its 2017-18 First-Year Book Program, and the college’s first-year students were invited to attend the university’s Freshman Convocation, at which Stevenson was the keynote speaker. Other programs and events related to Just Mercy will be offered across all Georgia State University campuses throughout the semester.