Massachusetts Public Defender
Chester Fernandez (’12) is a public defender at the Massachusetts Committee for Public Counsel Services (CPCS), where he provides legal representation and advocacy to indigent clients charged with misdemeanor and felony criminal offenses. A typical workday for Fernandez includes representing clients at arraignment, bail appeals, probation violation hearings, or other pre-trial hearings during the morning, and then in the afternoon visiting with clients in jail or prison, meeting with probation officers, doing legal research for pre-trial motions, and preparing any cases he has set for trial. Fernandez chose Colorado Law because, as he put it, the school "had it all:" small class size, great location, affordability, and a great reputation in the local legal community to help him get externships and summer jobs.
As a law student at Colorado Law, what courses or practical learning experiences (i.e. internships, clinics) best prepared you for what you are doing now?
I was fortunate to have completed two clinics at Colorado Law (Criminal Defense and Indian Law), two externships at the Colorado Supreme Court, and summer internships at Qwest Communications and the Colorado Attorney General’s Office. All in all, I got a very well rounded, practical grounding in legal research and writing, oral advocacy, and client communication.
Just as important as the legal experience I received was the counseling I received from professors, externship supervisors, and attorneys like Hans Meyer. I consider them personal and professional role models. I consider myself lucky to have had professors that took the time to find out about my life and provide me with guidance not just about law school, but life in general. Professors I consider friends, like Professors Sarah Krakoff and Ann England. Colorado Law also provided me access to judges like Judge Russel (Colorado Court of Appeals), Justice Eid (Colorado Supreme Court), and Judge Gorsuch (Tenth Circuit). Each spent a considerable amount of time with me. There’s nothing quite like talking about the Red Sox to a Colorado Rockies fan, who happens to be on the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals.
Lastly, I cannot forget to mention the wonderful supervision and guidance I received from an attorney at the Attorney General’s Office, Michael Melito, whom I consider both a friend and mentor.
What skills – legal or otherwise – do you utilize on a daily basis, and how do they make a positive difference in your work? How did you develop these skills?
The greatest skill I gained from Colorado Law was learning how to listen to people. I use this skill on a daily basis. I practice listening when interviewing clients, talking to my supervisor, talking to assistant district attorneys and probation officers about my clients. More importantly, I try to listen to what is going on in the lives of court officers, clerks, administrative assistants, and other staff that help me do my job.
The other skill I utilize frequently is the ability to think on my feet in court. I credit the criminal defense clinic experience and all my job interviews for whatever skill I have in this area.
Please talk a little about "people skills" and networking specifically. How has your professional network made a difference in your career?
My professional network has made a noticeable difference in my short legal career. Having people put in a good word for me with my colleagues started me off on the right foot. This mutual connection has allowed me to have a more personal relationship with co-workers than I might have otherwise had at this short timeframe in my career. The director of legal training at my job, a very busy person, has personally come to my office over the weekend to help me prepare for trial. Associate Clinical Professor Violeta Chapin provided a personal recommendation to the director at a training they both attended. There is so much value in having personal connections to people before you meet them.
What advice would you give to current Colorado Law students with respect to making the most of their legal education?
Do everything! I personally wish I could have taken more classes and done more externships before graduating from Colorado Law. Often people take certain classes because they are on the bar exam or they are at a certain time or day. I think this is a huge mistake. Take the professor not the class. I do not regret having taken any class at all my entire 2L and 3L years. I never had thought about Indian Law until I had Professor Krakoff using Indian Law cases in Civil Procedure. Wow! I ended up taking American Indian Law I (with Krakoff), Cultural Property (with another great professor – Kristen Carpenter), and did the year long American Indian Law Clinic. Did I ever think I would practice Indian Law? No. But nothing can replace the experience I had going to a reservation and meeting with a foster mother to help understand how best to draft the tribe’s foster-care licensing code. In my interview with my current employer the first thing they talked to me about was the interesting American Indian Law courses I had taken and asked me about the American Indian Law Clinic. Lastly, don’t be afraid to take "hard classes." I took advanced legal writing my 3L year with Judge Russel, and think hands down it was the most useful class I took at Colorado Law. It was much more work than the number of credits I got for it, but I loved it and wish I could have taken it my 2L year.
What advice would you give to current students with respect to finding a job?
Apply everywhere and for all different kind of jobs. Many people say, "when I graduate I want to do ‘X’ in ‘X’ place," and then only apply for that one job in that one location. Many types of legal jobs are hard to get straight out of law school, and I think people need to think about how it is they can get experience that can make them more attractive applicants for that dream job they want down the road. Don’t be afraid to reach out to employers well before you apply to get on their radar. Think ahead, way ahead! My first semester in law school, I had Justice Eid of the Colorado Supreme Court as my professor for torts. Half way through the semester I knew I wanted to intern at the Colorado Supreme Court. The day in December that I got my grades, I applied for an internship with Justice Eid. I secured the internship in December for the following September. Then all my applications for my 1L summer knew that I was going to be an intern with the Colorado Supreme Court after the summer. I think it really helped me land my first summer job.