Andrea Nieves ’10 describes her path from capital defense to policy advocacy in Latinxs in the Law Lecture

As a 1L at NYU Law, Andrea Nieves ’10 was one of the students who successfully petitioned to launch the annual Latinxs in the Law Lecture. A decade later, on October 29, Nieves returned to the Law School to deliver it. 

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Nieves recounted her career path from capital defense work in North Carolina to public policy advocacy in New York. At the time of the lecture, she was a senior policy attorney at Brooklyn Defender Services; in November, she took a position as senior legal counsel at the Justice Collaborative. Nieves said her shift in focus toward policy work reflected her conviction that racial injustice cannot be eliminated from the US legal system without systemic change. She also used her story to show law students how they can shape their own public interest careers.

Working as a capital defender, Nieves said, she grew frustrated at seeing how structural elements of the criminal justice system, such as bail or mandatory minimum sentences, pressured her clients to plead guilty instead of going to trial. 

“After three and a half years of doing capital defense work at the trial level and the appellate level, I was fed up,” she said. “Not with my clients and not with my colleagues, but with the law. The law was flawed. It was clear to me that we needed to increase our efforts and our capacity to change the law through the legislative process.”

Among the issues that Nieves worked on at Brooklyn Defender Services were extending the age limit of youthful offender protections and bringing open-file discovery to New York state, a reform that would require prosecutors to share the entire evidence file with defendants. While she has moved into a policy role, Nieves said that her previous experience representing individual clients was invaluable.

“We need lawyers to get into the nitty gritty…and be willing to sit down with legislators and explain to them all of those issues,” she said. “Because the reality is that the [legislators] who represent us often are not lawyers—or if they are lawyers, I can bet you they were not public interest lawyers. They were not on the front line in immigration court; they were not on the front line in criminal court.”

The job she held at Brooklyn Defender Services didn’t exist before she interviewed there, Nieves noted. The organization was looking for a lawyer to write policy papers, she said, but in the interview she made a pitch to change the job to a legislative advocacy position: “You should really hire people with extensive legislative experience so that you can build up campaigns and actually change laws, because while it’s great to have a public defender write papers about issues, it’s not going to change the laws.” Nieves was hired alongside someone with complementary experience in legislative advocacy, as Brooklyn Defender Services built out a team to do policy work full-time.

“I think the lesson from that is that if you have an idea and a path forward doesn’t exist, make it,” Nieves said.

Posted December 14, 2018