Aug. 18, 1994
Vol. 14, No. 2

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    Conyers: For the defense: Fighting for rights of all in society

    In her criminal-defense work, Herschella Conyers hears a lot of stories. She calls them the "human side" of events -- complete with contradicting characters and complaining witnesses -- the side that mixes the intellectual content of the law with the practical workings of the legal system. For Conyers, Clinical Lecturer and Attorney in the Law School's Edwin F. Mandel Legal Aid Clinic, it is the daily blending of these elements that makes her job not only worthwhile but also something she feels she was destined to do.

    "I love being in the courtroom, trying my own cases and even watching other trials. The notion of what people's rights are has always fascinated me, and it only makes sense when you deal with them every day and understand how those rights operate. I try to make those rights work for everybody as best they can, particularly for those who don't have anything else," Conyers said.

    Conyers (A.B.'72, J.D.'83), a native of Chicago, said she loved the years she spent as an English major in the College. She remained at the University to attend the Law School, and she describes that experience as simply "not the College."

    "I don't think law school in general is meant to be a pleasant experience, but my clinical experience here was the best -- it really hooked me on criminal-defense work," Conyers said.

    After taking time off from law school and working in legal-aid services in Ohio and at the Sojourner Truth House for Battered Women in Wisconsin, Conyers returned to Chicago and finished her degree. In 1986, following a short stint with a private practitioner, she joined the staff of the Cook County public defender's office, where she worked with Randolph Stone, who was Cook County public defender from 1988 until he became Director of the Mandel Legal Aid Clinic in 1991.

    Conyers continued to work as a supervisor and deputy chief in the public defender's office until 1993, when she joined the staff at the Mandel Legal Aid Clinic.

    "I really do feel privileged to work with people I respect and who have taught me over the years, both inside and outside the classroom. I also enjoy teaching and training future lawyers, because it forces me to rethink things and discard some of the cliches you develop from years of practice," Conyers said.

    As a clinical staff person and lecturer, Conyers teaches second- and third-year law students how to prepare and try cases and guides them as they defend actual clients. Conyers and her students generally have an active caseload of between 10 and 15 cases. The students take a prominent role, acting as attorneys in court whenever possible. Most of the cases are juvenile cases, which means her clients are usually 17 years old or younger, and involve felonies that often get tried in adult courts.

    "There is a perception that most violence is perpetrated by children or young adults, which has translated into a criminal-justice system that is willing to lock up our future," Conyers said. "Well, there are a number of factors that contribute to violence in this society that are not being addressed."

    The emotional toll of juvenile criminal-defense work is something Conyers feels is par for the course. She keeps a picture of one of her clients tacked on the wall in her office. It's a snapshot of a small, 15-year-old girl who is charged with murdering a 2-year-old child. Convinced of the young girl's innocence, Conyers took the case after it was referred to her by the public defender's office. A victory occurred earlier this year when Conyers won a petition to have the child tried in juvenile court, against the wishes of the state.

    "I get emotionally involved in all my cases, but I don't see that as a fault. You can't tell someone you are going to affect her life for the next 15 or 20 years and not get emotionally involved. Do I have sleepless nights? Yes. Do I think I'm supposed to have sleepless nights? Yes," she said.

    When Conyers isn't working long hours in the clinic or appearing in court, she spends time with her 19-year-old son, Seth. She believes parenting should not be left up to the penal system, and the issues that move her as an attorney are closely related to her role as a parent. She is concerned about how the criminal-justice system treats young women and minorities and about how to address issues of guns, violence and the availability of drugs. Longer sentences for drug-related offenses have been ineffective in dealing with the drug problem, Conyers said.

    Conyers is very much connected -- and very satisfied -- with what she does. "Some people believe that with a U of C law degree I should be doing something else, but this is what I am here to do, and it suits me perfectly," she said.

    For people considering criminal-defense work, Conyers has direct advice based on a decade of experience.

    "If you have an ax to grind, write your congressperson. If you find criminal law 'exciting and sexy,' you'll learn that alone won't sustain you. It's very lonely sometimes. You must be ready and willing to stand next to someone whom the rest of the world hates and may want dead and give that person the best you've got -- every time."

    -- Charles Whitt