Emmalyn “Emma” McCarthy ’20 remembers the exact moment she made the fateful decision to attend law school.
It was late January 2017, when news reports showed lawyers leaping into action as the first iteration of the Trump administration’s new travel ban was handed down and enforced at U.S. airports.
McCarthy was a political science and government major at Saint Mary’s College in Notre Dame, Indiana, at the time, and wondering if law school was the next step in her educational path.
“When I saw these lawyers showing up in airports to help as best they could, I knew a law degree was in my future,” McCarthy says. “I wanted that sort of training in my pocket to be able to show up at a moment’s notice and help those around me.”
The knowledge that William & Mary Law School had a strong clinical program helped McCarthy make her decision. And during fall semester of her 3L year she was more than happy to help the Law School’s new Immigration Clinic get off the ground.
The great responsibilities of clinic work were immediately apparent to McCarthy and her fellow students. Each team had to manage a case, communicate with clients, and set up requisite meetings.
“Of course, we had supervision every step of the way, since we weren’t licensed attorneys, but each of us took pride and ownership in our work,” McCarthy says. “The clinic was a great simulation of what legal practice is actually like.”
As might be expected with immigration law, language barriers were often a problem. But students turned it into an opportunity to work with an interpreter and provided a new twist on learning how to be the best advocate possible.
“I was very fortunate that the clinic had an interpreter on hand—a fellow law student in fact—who spoke the language my client spoke,” McCarthy says. “This made scheduling and working together a breeze.”
Getting over that hurdle, McCarthy worked diligently to form a meaningful relationship with her client, who had been through a lot and had worked with several lawyers before getting to the Immigration Clinic. That meant building trust.
“It was very important to explain my role to her as clearly as I could and then continually reinforce throughout our meetings what we were working toward,” McCarthy says. “I think it worked, and I will admit to shedding a few tears after our final meeting.”
Not surprisingly, the stress levels in this kind of work can be daunting, but McCarthy and fellow students had ways of coping. Early on in their clinic experience, the class met with students from William & Mary’s School of Education, some of whom specialized in trauma-informed counseling.
“This was helpful not only in informing us as law students about how to interview clients with sensitivity to their lived experience, it was also an important conversation about how we as advocates could best take care of our own mental health when handling and processing such heavy information,” McCarthy says.
As the semester progressed, the students also set aside time in class each week to share updates about the cases they were handling and get insight from each other.
“Our class had a great sense of camaraderie, and working as a team really made managing the stress easier,” McCarthy says.
With immigration law constantly evolving, McCarthy remembers constantly checking her phone and receiving breaking news alerts that directly affected her work. However, she was heartened to see how the broader community of immigration lawyers would share information among practitioners.
In one instance, she discovered conflicting information on a particular issue her client was facing. Sending a cold email, she ended up speaking with another immigration attorney in the area who had dealt with a similar issue and was able to point her in the right direction.
“I think lawyers often get a bad reputation for being self-centered and unwilling to help others in the profession,” McCarthy says. “My experience working in the immigration lawyer community demonstrated that this could not be further from the truth; these lawyers are superheroes!”
McCarthy took away many important lessons, particularly as her clinic experience involved representing a human client, rather than an organization.
“The weight of having my client’s life and safety in my hands was immense, and motivated me every day to make sure I was the best advocate I could be,” she says. “I also left with such a renewed optimism for the future of the legal profession. I was constantly inspired by the brilliance of my classmates and am so proud to have been a small part of such an incredible group.”
Now that she’s enjoying her first legal job after graduation—working for the federal government—McCarthy credits the Immigration Clinic with reminding her why she came to law school in the first place.
“As clichéd as it sounds, I went to law school because I wanted to have a set of tools to offer legal assistance when needed,” McCarthy says. “Seeing the concrete ways a legal education can be used in positive way to help individuals, many of whom have fled great violence and tragedy in their country of origin, was a wonderful reminder of why lawyers are needed. It also served as a great reminder to get involved in pro bono immigration work as a practicing attorney because more help is always needed.”
Despite the busy schedule with her new job, McCarthy keeps up with the Immigration Clinic’s current work and hopes other students get involved.
“I cannot recommend it enough; the amount of growth I experienced both as legal professional and as a human being is something that cannot be replicated in a traditional classroom setting,” she says. “Doing the Immigration Clinic was the best choice I made during my time at William & Mary.”
Legal education in a university setting began at William & Mary in 1779. Now in its third century, America's first law school continues its historic mission of educating citizen lawyers who are prepared both to lead and to serve.