Becoming a Criminal Defense Attorney

Virginia defense attorney Mary Nerino as she discusses when she decided she wanted to become an attorney and some aspects of her past that demonstrate her passion for law. To discuss your case with Ms. Nerino, call and schedule a consultation today.

Why Did You Want To Become a Criminal Defense Attorney

I’ve always found criminal defense and the criminal justice system interesting because the criminal justice system is very complicated. On one side, you have the government with almost infinite resources, including officers, technicians, and prosecutors with extensive training and expertise on how to collect evidence and use it to convict someone of a crime. Then on the other side, you have a regular person who finds him- or herself in contact with this intricate and complicated system, with very little knowledge about how to proceed, and that person really has the odds stacked against them from the beginning.

I became interested in becoming a criminal defense attorney because I wanted to help even out this disproportional legal system. I’ve always wanted to be an advocate helping people accused of crimes navigate their way through the process- helping them understand exactly what they are accused of, all of the possible consequences of a conviction, and the avenues available through which they can fight back.

This really hit home during my first law school summer when I was clerking for immigration judges in Pennsylvania. The immigration court I worked with specifically dealt with individuals who were being deported due to a criminal conviction, often- a very minor criminal conviction. Once these individuals reached the immigration court, the judges’ hands were often tied because the convictions left the individuals ineligible for relief from deportation under the law.

One judge told me that if I really wanted to make a difference, I should work at the criminal trial level and help defendants fight the government on the charges from the very beginning. They told me that zealously advocating for someone accused of a crime, and providing them with the best defense possible, would have the most positive impact on that person’s life. I really took that to heart. For me, the choice after law school became simply whether or not I wanted to represent people who were at their most vulnerable, and that was an easy choice for me to make. I knew I wanted to represent the people who were accused of crimes—to fight for people in a position where they needed my help the most.

Aspect of Your Past That Reflect Your Passion For Defense

I think that pretty much everything on my résumé and that I’ve been through in my life has reflected my passion for being a criminal defense attorney. In high school, I was involved in the students’ program with the local bar association, and I participated in Mock Trial. I interned for a criminal judge and a criminal defense attorney during college. I actually majored in Sociology with an emphasis on criminology, focusing on gang and crime organizations as an undergrad. When I went to law school, I took every criminal law class, seminar, clinic and program on criminal law that was available to me. When the opportunity arose to work as a research assistant with a professor who was writing on an individual criminal defendant’s right to counsel and the collateral consequences of criminal conviction, I immediately jumped at the chance.

The issue of “collateral consequences” especially piqued my interest- what I mean by that is when you’re convicted of a crime, it doesn’t just stop with your sentence. For many individuals in the United States, the conviction itself won’t have an immediate impact on someone’s life beyond the courtroom, but it can have life-altering and devastating long-term effects. For example, in can affect someone’s ability to vote, qualify for housing, government-provided subsidies, student loans, ability to own a gun in Virginia, or even alter their eligibility for immigration status. And these are just a few of the many collateral consequences that can follow from a criminal conviction. I really explored those effects when I was in law school and continued to move into the inner workings of the criminal justice system. That shaped who I am as a criminal defense attorney and really reflects how passionate I am about the subject. I continue to take every opportunity to learn about the field and seek out new information about various crimes and their collateral consequences, and the defenses that are available to my clients.

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