Jennifer AhnstedtFor many students at the University of Colorado Law School, the legal clinics are an invaluable experience. For Jennifer Ahnstedt ('97), the time she spent in the Criminal Defense Clinic allowed her to match her values of community service to a career in law, and ultimately served as the catalyst for her public service career. 

Ahnstedt always knew she wanted to be a lawyer, given her desire to give back to her community. She consequently entered Colorado Law with the intention of focusing on environmental law. However, after her first year she began questioning her decision to attend law school.

Then, in her second year, Ahnstedt enrolled in the Criminal Defense Clinic. From the moment of her first meeting with a client, she knew she was on the right track.

“The Criminal Defense Clinic showed me this was my path. The clinic gave me a purpose and a focus in law school,” Ahnstedt said. She even won the Legal Aid Award for her services to clients during her time in the clinic.

The summer after her second year of law school, Ahnstedt interned at the Jefferson County Public Defender’s Office, where she handled the juvenile docket and even tried several cases.

“I learned the way a public defender’s office operates as opposed to a traditional firm. I saw a population that needed help. I saw a population that was less likely to get access to justice and less likely to be heard unless they had a public defender who actually cared for them,” she said.

Ahnstedt’s career as a dedicated public servant began with her experiences in the Criminal Defense Clinic and continues to this day. Over the past 20 years, Ahnstedt has worked in a variety of capacities at the Office of the Colorado State Public Defender. She even spent two years in the Office of the Public Defender of the Northern Mariana Islands where she handled various cases and helped draft a new juvenile delinquency code. From deputy state public defender to her current position as training director, she has represented indigent clients both outside and within Colorado and trained future generations of public defenders.

“I enjoy engaging with clients and helping them navigate the criminal justice system with dignity and humanity and ensuring they have a voice with what’s happening,” Ahnstedt said.

As training director, Ahnstedt trains lawyers and staff statewide to effectively represent clients. She travels across Colorado to visit the 21 regional offices of the Colorado State Public Defender, and is responsible for teaching and enforcing an excellent standard of practice for hundreds of attorneys.

“It’s important to maintain high quality assistance of council across the state,” Ahnstedt said. “The level of practice that we maintain has a huge impact on how indigent clients are treated in court.”

In addition to supporting and contributing to the training of investigators, administrative staff, and social workers, she also trains many interns and she sees how valuable such an internship continues to be for young attorneys.

The life of a public defender is not easy, but Ahnstedt is proud of her career and how it has allowed her to serve and give back to her community. “For the most part, I have been able to go into court and fight for a client after losing the day before,” she said. “I am most proud that I can continue to stand up and fight tooth and nail for clients even though I know I’m likely going to lose.”

Although her career and family keep her busy, Ahnstedt still makes time for other interests including knitting and gardening.

What is your fondest memory of being a student at Colorado Law?

While in the criminal law clinic, I met my first client at the Penny Lane coffee shop in Boulder. To that point, I had led a very sheltered and privileged life. Though I am embarrassed to admit it now, when I went to meet my client I didn’t know what to expect, and I was a little worried. When I got there, I met a young man who was just a few years older than I was, who was struggling with a heroin addiction, and was trying to make a living off of his artistic talents. What I learned that day was that he and I were no different; both human beings, both with hopes and dreams we were trying to realize. During that meeting, I came to understand that as a lawyer I could help him move past some of the obstacles standing in the way of his getting where he wanted to be.

What do you know now that you wish you had known in law school?

I wish I had been able to better understand case law by seeing its real life application. For example, I did not fully grasp the implications of constitutional law until I saw it impacting my clients’ rights in real life encounters with law enforcement.

What advice would you give to current students as they’re preparing to graduate?

Find time to explore the area of law in which you think are interested, get a feel for the environment where you will be working after graduation if you choose that path, and get some real-world experience so you can hit the ground running.

Who was the biggest influence on your career?

Ann Roan (’89). Ann was the person who first inspired me to seek an internship with the Golden Public Defender, encouraged me while I was interning in the officer, and mentored me over the years as a public defender even when we were in different offices. Ann helped me become a better lawyer and teacher. 

Of what accomplishment are you most proud?

I am proud that I have been able to foster in both my daughters a strong sense of social justice, and a firm belief that all people are equal, and are entitled to equal treatment, regardless of income, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or race.

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