An illustration depicting the silhouettes of three people standing in front of a huge torch.
Illustration by Katie McBride

Beacons for equal justice

September 28, 2023
Approximately 10% of the Class of 2023 took positions as public defenders.
By Matthew Dewald

A few years ago, David Johnson, R’80 and L’83, was getting ready to teach a course at Richmond Law when he came across a checklist used by medical professionals to gauge major stressors in patients’ lives. The gist of the checklist — commonly called the Life Events Inventory — is a series of yes/no questions. Has the patient or someone in their family been in a serious accident? Experienced divorce? Lost a job? Had a death in the family?

One question really jumped out at him as he put together his course materials: Had the patient or a family member been arrested or incarcerated? According to this checklist, medical professionals had identified getting caught up in the criminal justice system as one of the most traumatic experiences a person can have. Johnson added it to his resources for the course he was teaching: Criminal Defense Practice.

“That’s one of the things I talk to my students about,” he said. “You’re in a small room with somebody who’s going through an event that you can’t understand.”

One of his former students, Whitney 
King, L’23, has decided that she will be the attorney in that small room. In August, she began a position as a public defender in Chesterfield County, Virginia, just south of Richmond. She is one of 14 of her classmates — approximately 10% of the Class of 2023 — who are beginning their legal careers as public defenders. It’s the highest number in recent years, a surge driven by state-level changes in public defender offices, law students’ growing interest in career paths tied to social justice, and changes within Richmond Law to more strongly support students interested in exploring public interest law.


As far back as fifth grade, King knew she wanted to be an attorney. As a kid, she was a quick thinker and relished a good argument. Her mom saw she was a natural for the profession and encouraged her ambition. When King arrived at Richmond Law, she assumed she’d go into some form of business or commercial law. Business and legal studies, after all, were her undergraduate majors at Temple University, and she had interned with the Securities and Exchange Commission. The combination interested her, and she was good at it.

But her first year of law school, which coincided with the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic, was a rough ride. She ended it contemplating a gap year but took a summer internship with a firm in Richmond while she figured things out. The internship, it turned out, was pivotal. One day, she was riding in the car from appointment to appointment with one of the partners, and he started telling her stories about his career, including from a stint as a public defender. It clicked with her. She wanted to argue cases in courtrooms and had begun to understand that civil litigation, as she put it, “is more the threat of litigation” than in-court advocacy.

The thing about public defenders is that we don’t hide how we feel about things. We all understand the importance of advocacy.
—Whitney King, L'23

Other experiences from before her law school enrollment also kept resurfacing in her reflections that summer. There was an undergraduate semester she spent as an intern at the Philadelphia district attorney’s office. “It really opened my eyes to immense disparities,” she said. “I worked in a program that was designed for kids in the foster care system, so I was hearing about their lives and, for the first time, having my privilege right up in front of me.”

And there was the murder of George Floyd and the worldwide demonstrations that followed during the summer before her first semester at Richmond Law. They deeply affected her and further helped surface her personal values as she wrestled with frustration at seeing “other people not as upset as I was,” she said.

Yet, she had never seriously thought about these experiences and values in the context of her law school trajectory until the conversations in the car during her summer internship. She didn’t have a light bulb moment exactly — “it was definitely a slow realization,” she said — but she began a reorientation in her thinking about why she was in law school and what she aimed to do after graduation. Meanwhile, the state of Virginia and Richmond Law were making this a particularly good time for her to be doing so.


With his students, Johnson likes to echo a line from John Rapping, the founder of the nonprofit public defender organization Gideon’s Promise: Public defenders are on the front lines of the civil rights movement, he says. Johnson also tells his students that it’s easy to fall in love with the work. As a young lawyer, he planned to work in public defense for a short while before moving on to something else. He ended up doing it for 37 years.

“We often say that the two hardest things about the job are No. 1, getting it, and No. 2, leaving it,” he said. “The best thing I can say about the job is that I never got up in the morning and thought, ‘God, I’ve got to go to work.’”

Johnson watched his practice area transform in Virginia over the course of his career, and he eventually led it. When he graduated from Richmond Law, there was no public defender’s office in Richmond, so he signed up to be on the list of potential court-appointed attorneys. He joined the newly formed Richmond Public Defender Office as an assistant public defender in 1986 and grew professionally within it. In 2005, he became the executive director of the Virginia Indigent Defense Commission, where he eventually oversaw 28 public defender offices until his retirement in August 2022.

We often say that the two hardest things about the job are No. 1, getting it, and No. 2, leaving it.
Dave Johnson, R'80 and L'83

Throughout his tenure, resources and training for public defenders steadily grew as Virginia tried to put its public defenders on closer to equal footing with prosecutors’ offices. For example, it became the first state to have legislatively mandated standards of practice for indigent defense representation. More recently, the state’s 2021 fiscal year budget added 59 new public defender positions. Around that period, the VIDC also got funding to open new offices in Prince William and Chesterfield counties. With these changes, the total number of VIDC lawyers jumped quickly from 335 to about 460. The commission still isn’t on par with its counterparts in prosecutors’ offices, but the trajectory over his career has been a narrowing of the gap.

These developments opened new opportunities, Johnson said, for law students like King, who loved her time as an intern in Chesterfield’s public defender office. “Chief public defenders around the state were saying, ‘This is the time to hire people who are still in school,’ and they did and the results were great,” Johnson said. “They realize they’re worth waiting for.”

Back at Richmond Law, Johnson was helping the school take additional steps to support students interested in a public defender career path and entice even more. He had taught as an adjunct for more than a decade while leading the VIDC. When he retired, the school extended an opportunity for him to become a visiting professor, a status that integrated him more fully into the school’s workings.

“One of the discussions I had with the dean — and she was very supportive — is that we’ve got 25-plus criminal law courses. That’s a lot,” he said. “We’re in the capital city; we’ve got large prosecutors’ offices, public defender offices, the attorney general’s office — and they all have a bunch of lawyers.”

But amid all of that bounty, he saw a disconnect: Students didn’t take criminal law their first semester, so they haven’t been exposed to it when they begin thinking about their first summer internships. The dean empowered Johnson to create the Richmond Criminal Justice Forum, which offers programming to connect students with public defenders and prosecutors over informal lunches, panels, and other offerings. It also partners with student groups across a wide range of interests and has a 10-member student advisory board.

“This is a big tent,” he said. “There’s a lot of opportunity here.”

On the career development side, the school offers a variety of services to support students’ career exploration, said Janet Hutchinson, associate dean for career development. Some of them are generally applicable to all law students — connections for internships, for example, and mock interviews. Sixty to 70 alumni participate in the latter each year to prepare students for the real ones.

More and more students are coming to law school thinking about justice and how we can improve the world that we live in.
Janet Hutchinson

Other opportunities are specific to students exploring careers in public service and government. The Summer Public Service Fellowship Program, for example, guarantees every law student at least one fellowship to support an internship with a public sector organization. The school partners with the VIDC on a program that provides funding to support internships in high-need public defender offices in rural areas. As part of the curriculum, it offers faculty-supervised in-house clinics for academic credit — such as the Institute for Actual Innocence and the Children’s Defense Clinic — that put students in contact with indigent clients in places like prisons and parole board hearings. Post-graduation, there are Bridge to Practice Fellowships, which come with stipends to support new graduates pursuing careers in government and public interest law while they await bar examination results.


Taken together, these resources and opportunities can help students discover, explore, and pursue careers in public service from the moment they walk in the door until after graduation, something Hutchinson says students are increasingly looking for.

“I do think that there’s something special about both the time that we’re living in and what’s happening at the law school,” she said. “The political times that we’re in have meant that more and more students are coming to law school thinking about justice and how we can improve the world that we live in.”

After her giant post-bar exhale in July, King found herself antsy to begin her new position, which didn’t start until late August. A balance beam specialist on Temple’s NCAA gymnastics team in college, she felt eager and prepared for the high stakes of her first cases. “If you can perform under pressure doing flips on a 4-inch piece of wood that’s 4 feet off the ground, it makes you learn how to handle pressure and nerves,” she said.

And, just as when her gymnastics teammates cheered her, King feels the support of a mini-community among her classmates also beginning their careers as public defenders.

“The thing about public defenders is that we don’t hide how we feel about things. We all understand the importance of advocacy,” she said. “Law is such a powerful tool. It really is one of the most direct ways that we can make this a better place for people who are consistently thrown aside by our legal system. It’s important to see the law as a tool to make a change in the world.”