Deborah Cantrell

Associate Professor, Director of Clinical Programs

What motivated you to become involved in public service work?

Before I came to law school, I was a research psychologist and I spent a lot of time observing people in a lab.  I had hoped to use research to make people's lives better, but my experience in the lab felt very removed from the real world.  So, I went to law school in the hopes that as a lawyer, I could become an active agent for social change.

 Since I graduated from law school, I have tried hard to make sure that I find work that is designed to change society for the better--through working with individuals and by working on large systemic reform and policy change.  Some of the highlights of my time as a lawyer have included: litigating one of the first civil hate violence cases in California on behalf of an LGBT client; working with low-income elderly folks in rural New Mexico; and assisting prisoners in Connecticut's maximum security facility with investigating possible ethical violations committed by their lawyers.

 Each year as I work here at Colorado Law with student attorneys in our Clinical Education Program, I am reminded anew of the remarkable privilege we have of using our legal knowledge and competencies to help underserved and underrepresented folks move forward in their lives.

 Did you have experiences in law school that influenced your interest in public service work?

Just as I started law school, the 3Ls at my school organized a public interest law students' association.  That group was important to me as it gave me lots of opportunities to meet with like-minded students.  I went to law school when it still was common that one's first job after graduation was with a private law firm.  So, most of the career services were focused on helping students get law firm jobs.  The public interest student association was my main source of information about the local and regional public interest organizations and about how to get a job at one of those places.  Additionally, the student group set up "help" days where law students would travel to local social services agencies and help folks apply for government benefits.  I will never forget the family of five that I met on one of my first "help" days.  They had just moved to town, had spent their savings to rent an apartment, and had absolutely no money for food.  The two parents had not yet found jobs, so they were applying for food stamps.  The paperwork had become overwhelming, and the whole family was standing outside the benefits office when I showed up.  The youngest child was crying, clearly everyone was hungry, and they were going to begin the trudge back to their apartment.  I was able to sort through the paperwork, and ultimately got them emergency benefits.  It was a humbling experience because I think the real reason I could help was that I was wearing a suit and the benefits caseworker afforded me respect that she had been unwilling to afford to the family.  That seemed incredibly unfair.  That memory stays with me, and motivates me to this day.

 Please tell us about a piece of your scholarship or your teaching that you are passionate about and that is related to public service.

I am passionate about finding new ways to make the legal system work better for the underserved or underrepresented.  For example, I recently wrote about ways in which family law courts might work with unrepresented parties to help those parties reach more amicable and lasting solutions. 

 What advice do you have for our students who are interested in public service?

Be a "social justice provocateur."  (That's a phrase coined by Jane Aiken who teaches at Georgetown Law School.)  For me, being a social justice provocateur means having the ability to reflect on the core moral principles that inform my life, making sure that I act in accordance with those principles, and understanding that I am obligated to push against the status quo when the status quo is not consistent with my core principles.  In other words, I do not believe that the law is magic or should be accorded some special level of deference.  The law should bend to social justice and not vice versa.