Margaret Farrell made it her mission to help indigent Coloradans and went wherever she needed to go to make that happen. During law school, Farrell served as a student attorney in the Criminal/Immigration Defense Clinic and completed an internship and externship with the Colorado State Public Defender, channeling her passion for aiding undocumented immigrants charged with crimes. Now as a deputy state public defender in the Pueblo Regional Office, Farrell continues her passion, representing children ages 10 and up in juvenile court.
Tell us a little about your work. What do you do, and what might a “typical” work day look like?
My days can be hectic, and I am rarely in my office for more than a couple of hours at a time. Usually the day starts with a detention hearing for a child who has recently been arrested. First, I meet with the child and then appear before the judge to advocate on the child’s behalf, usually requesting that the child return home rather than remain in juvenile detention. Then I might head back to the office and meet with other juvenile clients to help them better understand their rights, the charges against them, and the prosecution’s discovery. It takes a lot longer to explain how a trial works to a child, so we spend a lot of time drawing pictures of the courtroom and trying to imagine what each person would say at trial. For example, the DA says, “Jimmy swung his backpack at John at the middle school!” and Jimmy and I say, “Prove it!”
After that, I might go back to court to argue that certain evidence collected by police should be excluded at trial because perhaps the child didn’t have a parent present during police questioning or the child didn’t understand his or her right to remain silent. Most trials in juvenile court are court trials, which means the judge decides whether the child is guilty or not guilty rather than a jury of his or her peers. I usually have one or more court trials scheduled per week. Later, I will usually visit a child or two at the juvenile jail to check up on them, update them on their cases, and explain any new plea offers.
My greatest asset as a public defender is the social worker who works for the public defender’s office in Pueblo. She builds strong friendships with the children and helps me understand their social and psychological histories so I can better explain the child’s situation to the judge and district attorney.
How did you find your job?
The Career Development Office (CDO) put on a lunch event during my 1L year where a few public defenders from the Boulder office talked about their jobs. Amanda Bailhache (’05) really stood out to me. I loved her passion for fighting the government and protecting her clients. Amanda ended up being my supervisor during my 3L externship with the Boulder Public Defender’s Office.
In the spring of my 1L year, I sent my resume to Alexia McCaskill for editing and soon thereafter sent my application materials to every public defender office in Colorado, hoping for a summer internship. I first heard back from the public defender’s office in Salida, though I had never heard of Salida and had no idea where it was. During my phone conversation with the office head, we discovered that we had both lived in Banos, Ecuador! I accepted the position in Salida, spending that summer living in a trailer home by the Arkansas River with a local woman and her somewhat exotic cast of pets (cats, dogs, and ferrets!). I was hooked on the sense of camaraderie and fun in the office.
In the fall of my 2L year, I interviewed for a paid summer intern position. I was offered a position and told I’d be sent south to Pueblo, where I spent a summer living in a basement belonging to a couple that also worked at the public defender’s office. I loved the people in the Pueblo office and was excited to be managing a caseload by myself. I handled many motions hearings and one jury trial that summer. I knew that I had found my calling, and I couldn’t wait to continue pursuing work as a public defender.
Finally, in the fall of my 3L year, I secured a position with the Colorado State Public Defender’s Office, and knew I could be sent to any of the offices throughout the state. During May of my 3L year, I found out I’d be returning to Pueblo. I started working the week after the bar exam, so I had to hit the ground running.
How did Colorado Law help you in your job search?
The lunches put on by the CDO first opened my eyes to what public defenders do. I also received immense help in crafting my resume and cover letter from the CDO, and I took part in a winter event where I got to do a mock interview with a local criminal defense attorney. He told me that during an interview, it was important to be myself and let my passion for the work shine through.
The legions of Colorado Law graduates throughout the Colorado State Public Defender system made me feel comfortable and confident stepping out into the legal world after graduation. When I run into a fellow Colorado Law graduate in court, whether they are on the defense or prosecution side, it helps to see a friendly face.
What skills do you utilize on a daily basis and how did your experiences or courses at Colorado Law help you develop these skills?
Far and away the most formative experience I had at Colorado Law was my participation in the Criminal/Immigration Defense Clinic during my 2L year. Professor Violeta Chapin (a former public defender herself) instilled in our small group of clinic students a deep concern for preserving justice in the criminal justice system. I’ll never forget our assignment to choose a “trial song” which is a song you imagine playing as you walk into the courtroom to fight for your client. We also analyzed the lyrics of Jay-Z’s “99 Problems” from a Fourth and Fifth Amendment perspective.
We walked undocumented immigrant clients through the process of applying for the DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) program. The excitement we felt alongside our clients when they were granted DACA status was rewarding.
I also participated in my first jury trial alongside Professor Chapin in Boulder County Municipal Court. My 19-year-old client was accused of taking home a stop sign from a street on University Hill after a night of partying. Although the jury rejected my argument that a stop sign is just like a free lamp or table left out by the street, my client thanked me for my work and said that he would recommend me to all his friends!
Please talk a little about “people skills” and relationship building. How have your professional acquaintances (and friends) made a difference in your career?
I am lucky to be one of many Colorado Law graduates who have become Colorado state public defenders. Among many other benefits, it is so helpful to be able to reach out via email to a former classmate in my office or another office whenever I have a question.
My first supervisor in the Pueblo office, Zak Brown (’12), who won the Colorado State Public Defender Attorney of the Year award in 2017, had also been Jonathan Jourdane’s (’15) supervisor in the Durango office. Jonathan’s stories about Zak’s legendary legal mind made me feel comfortable beginning my career under his tutelage. I now work in an office with Alex San Filippo-Rosser (’11), Paul Jose (’15), Brian Montrose (’13), Austin Nelson (’17), Lauren Swan (’17), and Jamie Keairns (’15). Our shared experience at Colorado Law is an invaluable resource, and it’s always a joy to reminisce about clinic experiences and favorite professors.
What advice would you give to current students with respect to finding a job?
I’d say find the job that makes you excited. Every day I come home from work excited to rehash the day with my roommate over some of our favorite reality shows (Queer Eye and The Great British Bake-Off).
Your first year of work as a lawyer can be mentally draining and stressful. Make sure you take time for yourself. My dog, Louie, and I look forward to a swim and a hike at the Pueblo Reservoir or Arkansas River many days after work.
It can be lonely to work in a place outside the metro area, but Pueblo has awesome trails and parks that are much less crowded than those in Denver and Boulder! We also boast delicious green chile, affordable housing, and a warmer winter than the metro area.
If you were to recommend Colorado Law to a potential law student, what would you say?
You’ll never be sorry you chose Colorado Law. You get to spend three years in a beautiful building, on a beautiful campus, in a picturesque city. I was told at an admitted students’ visit day in 2012 that Colorado Law has a collegial atmosphere. I completely agree. My classmates have become my best friends in Colorado, and Colorado has an excellent legal market.
Why did you choose Colorado Law?
I’m from Buffalo, NY, where we unfortunately only experience 52 sunny days per year. When I received a brochure from Colorado Law advertising Colorado’s 300+ days of sunshine each year, I was hooked. I visited in April 2012, and could not believe how beautiful the campus was. Senior Assistant Dean for Students Whiting Leary reached out to me at a visit day luncheon, and when I told her I had spent time in Ecuador, she introduced me to Clinical Professor Ann England who had recently taken a group of students to tour Ecuadorian jails. Everyone I met was down-to-earth and friendly, and that continued to be my experience throughout my three years as a Colorado Law student.