Do you dream of a career, where you can fight for the rights of incarcerated individuals and work to correct errors made at trial? Do you long for a cerebral career, where you can explain to the court why the process that led to someone’s conviction was unfair? Do you want to help people leaving prison to integrate back into society? Are you interested in appellate law? If so, the Center for Appellate Litigation could be your dream job.
In 2016, I went to the Center for Appellate Litigation’s office in Wall Street to speak with Supervising Attorney, Marisa Cabrera about her organization’s work. Note: Marisa left the Center for Appellate Litigation in 2017 and now works at the Neighborhood Defender Service of Harlem.
What CAL Does
The Center for Appellate Litigation is a New York not-for-profit law firm, handling appeals and post-conviction proceedings on behalf of criminal defendants in cases assigned to them by the Appellate Division, First Department and Appellate Term, First Department. By challenging the procedures and outcomes of the system that may have unjustly convicted incarcerated prisoners, CAL strives to earn each client a respected place and respectful hearing in the quest for equal justice.
Beyond handling criminal appeals, CAL helps those leaving prison to reintegrate into society. Specifically, understanding that client advocacy does not end with the appellate process, in 2007, CAL launched two programs, the Parole Advocacy Project and the Prisoner Re-entry Program, to ease their clients’ transition back into their communities. Marisa explained that the parole advocacy project involves creating packets for their clients for the parole board to review.
Additionally, CAL has projects with specific missions, such as their SORA project, which focuses on protecting the due process of sex offenders.
CAL also has a Justice First project, which focuses on addressing wrongful convictions; specifically ensuring that wrongful convictions are detected and investigated as early in the appellate process as possible.
On top of all of that, CAL works on improving conditions for confinement and advocates for prisoners to be transferred to prisons closer to family.
CAL Summer and Post-Graduate Hiring
If you find CAL’s work as fascinating as I do and are interested in working there, you’re in luck. CAL hires about 3 summer interns and 3-5 attorneys per year.
CAL usually hires two 2Ls each summer and one 1L. You can apply by submitting your application through their website. To write a successful application, you must show that you are interested in the population they serve in your cover letter. They do not look at grades but they want to see that you are committed to their work. They like candidates who speak other languages.
CAL begins taking summer applications on September 15th. The application for 2Ls closes in November and the application for 1Ls closes in January. They offer positions on a rolling basis so it is better to apply sooner rather than later. They conduct phone interviews but will conduct them in-person as well if the candidate is in New York.
CAL hires 3-5 attorneys per year into two-year Staff Attorney fellowships. They also hire one-year Justice First fellows, who bring outside funding, to focus on those who have been wrongfully convicted. Notre Dame 3Ls can apply for a fellowship with CAL through Notre Dame’s Shaffer or Bank of America Foundation fellowships or for the Justice First Fellowship Program through Notre Dame’s bridge-to practice-program. They do look at grades when hiring Staff Attorneys.
Marisa explained that when hiring fellows, CAL looks to see that candidates have experience in criminal defense work. They want to see that candidates have taken relevant classes such as legal writing, evidence, and criminal procedure. They care about your grades in those classes and can let a bad grade in an unrelated topic slide if those grades are strong. They also ask for a cover letter and writing sample. Increasingly, they are hiring more and more attorneys with at least one year of experience, including clerkships.
How CAL Operates
CAL is referred cases for Manhattan and Bronx counties and is funded through a city contract.
Writing is a big deal at CAL since that is mostly what they do. As a result, every brief they write gets two sets of eyes before getting filed. A major component of Marisa’s job is to be one of those sets of eyes so she spends a lot of time reading briefs.
Marisa says the job is very cerebral and is “as close to academia without actually being academia.” There is a lot of researching, writing, reading, and responding to client letters.
They lose a lot and so CAL lawyers have to be emotionally prepared to deal with that. Courts often do not think the police or DA can do wrong.
CAL takes time to visit clients and takes their interns on those visits.
I asked her how frequently they see cases that have no issues for appeal and she says for trial cases, it pretty much never happens. CAL can just about always spot an issue for appeal. Most frequently, clients had ineffective attorneys who failed to advocate for them at trial.
I asked what causes Marisa to roll her eyes about her job and she said that the whole appellate process is slow. Lawyers often fail to preserve the record during trial so there are not as many issues that CAL can bring up on appeal.
One of the most interesting facts I learned about New York’s criminal justice system is that neighborhood defender services in New York are independent non-profits rather than government entities like the Cook County Public Defender. So Public Defender offices like the Bronx Defenders are non-profits that have contracts with the city.
Working at CAL
CAL is a very family friendly work environment. It is a 9-5 job with 27 vacation days a year.
Marisa rarely works weekends. There are expectations for filings but she is able to meet those expectations without working crazy hours.
A major perk of the job for Marisa is forging great relationships with clients. Marisa values being able to tell her client’s story. In her office, she has drawings that clients have created for her. My favorite was when a client, who had never seen her, painted a picture of her smiling.
I asked Marisa to tell me something that is very underrated in the work place but vital to her sanity. She says it is very important during the day to get away from your computer and talk to someone about something that is not the law. Go outside.
If you’re interested in working for CAL and want to craft a strong application, contact a CDO counselor.