Working as a Post-Conviction Public Defender By Way of Multiple Clerkships: An Interview with Lindsay Van Gorkom, NDLS 2005

KMB: What made you go to law school?

LV: I was an undergrad at Notre Dame with a government major and ended up doing a concentration in Peace Studies and became really interested in conflict resolution. I was thinking about what career would let me do that and was something I could realistically get into and thought law school was the right path that would open up a lot of possibilities.

I knew I wanted to do non-profit work but didn’t have a set place in the country where I wanted to go. It seemed like Notre Dame had alumni everywhere and would make it possible for me to work just about anywhere.

KMB: Did you know you wanted a career in public defense when you went to law school?

LV: I envisioned working for the legal services corporation or doing non-profit civil work for people. After law school, I realized my passion was criminal law.

KMB: How did you realize that?

LV: : My first job out of law school was a clerkship with Justice Rucker in the Indiana Supreme Court and working as an appellate clerk gave me the chance to see a broad range of legal issues and learn about things I had not  learned about during law school. Everything was really interesting. Clerking was a great experience. I started realizing that I was really interested in the criminal cases, I think, because the constitutional questions that were coming up were always so fascinating.

KMB: From there, what did you do?

LV: After that, I did a clerkship for two years at the Indiana Court of Appeals, which has a higher volume of cases. I got to continue doing the broad range of criminal or civil appeals she assigned to me. I just thought it was a really cool job. It was solidifying criminal law in my mind as the way to go when I was going to do a traditional practice after the clerkship ended. In 2009, I got married and my husband and I moved to Alaska. We both had clerkships that were ending that summer so we were in a position to pickup and do something different for a while.

Ahead of time, we planned this move pretty meticulously and I had secured a trial court clerkship in Anchorage and he also got a law job up there.

KMB: What was clerking in Alaska like and where did you go from there? When did you get started as a public defender?

LV: I was working again in the court setting but in a trial court, which was a very different and rewarding clerking experience.  After two years, I became a public defender at the trial unit at the Alaska Public Defender Agency in the fall of 2011. That’s where I got my start as a criminal defense attorney.

One of the people who became a good friend was a guy who had gone to NDLS but we didn’t know each other while we were in law school. He was a year or two behind me. He was also working at the Alaska Public Defender.

After several years of doing trial work, I joined the Appellate Unit. After my husband and I had our first child, when she was about a year and a half old, we decided we wanted to move back to Indiana and be closer to family. When we started planning that move, I reached out to the Indiana State Public Defender where I work now. They had an opening and I got the position. I have been here in Indianapolis since 2015.

KMB: What is your day to day life like at the Indiana Public Defender?

LV: Every day is different. Our agency does post-conviction cases only. For all of our cases, our clients have already been convicted and sentenced. Many of them, not all, have also had their convictions affirmed on appeal. We are appointed later. We look at every case with as fresh a set of eyes as we can. I may be reading a record in my office to understand what happened pre-trial, trial, and on appeal or I may be driving to visit a client who is incarcerated anywhere in the state. We handle cases in all of the counties in Indiana.

I may be reviewing court records, interviewing witnesses, doing investigations, meeting with attorneys who represented the defendants in earlier proceedings, or representing a client  in a hearing. We do research and decide whether to litigate claims, then are responsible for handling hearings and appeals. We do the briefing and oral arguments.

KMB: How did you get in that specific unit that handles post-conviction cases?

LV: I love being a public defender. So looking at moving back to Indiana, I was looking for a job in public defense and there was an opening in this agency. We had post-conviction claims come through our office in Alaska so I was familiar with the process.

KMB: What do you love about being a public defender?

LV: I really like trying to help people. I want my clients to have a good outcome but also, regardless of the outcome, feel like someone is on their side and cares about the outcome of their cases. I want people to feel like they got a fair process and if I can help someone feel better about a really tough situation, that is really rewarding.

KMB: What did you do during your law school summers?

LV: 1L Summer I interned for the Homeless Action Center in Berkeley and got a grant to work there. That was civil legal aid work. 2L summer, I interned at a non-profit in San Diego called the San Diego Volunteer Lawyer Program. There was a private law firm in San Diego that funded my position.

KMB: What advice do you have for law students who want to go into public interest work?

LV: Really think hard about what interests you and get experience doing that. If there is an opportunity to volunteer, take it. If you can find places over the summer that line up with what you think your interests are, go for it. You’ll never regret those experiences and you aren’t pigeonholed by your summer experiences. Those experiences broaden your horizons. You can always regroup afterwards and think “that was interesting but that is not really what I want to do” and look more closely at what your interests are. I loved my summers at the civil non-profits in California. I met fabulous attorneys who were dedicated to their work and learned a lot from them. I also met some really great attorneys in private practice.

Lindsay is happy to be connected with law students who are interested in pursuing public defense work. If you want to get in touch with her, send me an email.

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