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Chicago Public Defender Fights for Those With Odds Stacked Against Them

The job employment market may be seesawing, but law school graduates are putting up a good fight. In 2012, the number of active lawyers was 1.24 million and grew to 1.26 million by 2013.

(Photo Courtesy of Chastidy Burns)

According to the American Bar Association, the top five most popular states for active lawyers in 2013 were California (163K), New York (166K), Texas (82K), Florida (68K) and Illinois (62K).

But before these attorneys were able to secure employment, they were once students wondering "What's next?"

"You may not be able to get employed right after passing the bar and getting licensed," said assistant public defender Chastidy Burns. "But there's some volunteer work that you can do particularly with the office you want to get hired in. If you want to be a public attorney or state's attorney then you want to try to volunteer with those offices, [join] any organization that lets you take on real cases and have face time with clients."

The Cook County public defender recommends that students take courses in trial advocacy and pretrial litigation to become familiar with courtroom culture. Law school graduates may have to test the waters to figure out which field fits their personalities best.

"My first internship in law school was at the Public Guardian's Office in Cook County where they get appointed to cases of child abuse and neglect," said Burns. "It was really difficult to work within the foster care system. It's emotionally draining. You're dealing with a lot of kids who are in really bad situations. There's not much you can do about it. It seemed more like social work than practicing law."

But that didn't stop Burns from using her law degree to find an alternate way to help people. After interning with a public defender one summer later, she found her niche.

"I've seen that a lot of people end up in the criminal justice system not because they're bad people or because they're criminals by nature but they may come from circumstances that give them no other option. I enjoy representing people who the system is against."

Shamontiel L. Vaughn is a professional journalist who has work featured in AXS, Yahoo!, Chicago Defender and Chicago Tribune. She's been an Examiner since 2009 and currently writes about 10 categories on

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