Alumna finds success as an assistant public defender following experience in BU Law’s Criminal Law Clinic.
With an interest in politics and the law, Christine O’Rourke (’15) set out to pursue political science as a major at Loyola Marymount University. She wrote her undergraduate senior thesis on wrongful convictions and forensic science, interviewing public defenders, prosecutors, and scientists to complete her research. After finishing her thesis, O’Rourke was hooked.
Now an assistant public defender at the Defender Association of Philadelphia, O’Rourke credits Boston University School of Law, and especially the Criminal Law Clinic with preparing her for her current role. In her position, she is responsible for representing underserved individuals accused of crimes in Philadelphia. “Although it was an adjustment to learn a new system of laws in Pennsylvania, I had a solid foundation, and understood what it meant to be a public defender even before starting,” she states. “In addition, the clinic really taught me the importance of managing the actual case file, which has been an extremely useful skill.” Since beginning this position, she has already tried six trials and approximately 40 preliminary hearings.
In high school, O’Rourke competed on the moot court team, and her decision to attend BU Law was due in part to its 1L moot court requirement as well as the quality of its faculty. “I loved that we had a moot court 1L requirement because I knew I wanted a job that involved a great deal of public speaking and I had enjoyed mock trial in high school,” she says. “BU Law also had some of the best faculty in the country and throughout my time at BU I have been so impressed with the caliber of the professors.”
While in law school, O’Rourke participated on and coached mock trial teams, went on a spring break pro bono trip to Kansas City where she represented individuals on death row, and worked on the Boston University Law Review. She joined the Criminal Law Clinic in the spring semester of her second year and continued until graduation. Her daily responsibilities varied, from writing legal motions to conducting investigations and interviewing clients. “Through the clinic I was able to represent criminal defendants and dedicate the time and effort to the cases that these clients often do not get. I am so happy I chose to do it,” she says. In her 3L year she received a Clinical Legal Education Award for Outstanding Clinical Students, an honor given annually to one student who demonstrates excellence in both the fieldwork and seminar component of a clinical course, and who makes an outstanding contribution to the clinical community at the School of Law.
O’Rourke has clinic supervisor and Clinical Associate Professor Wendy Kaplan to credit for guiding her through the ins and outs of the Boston Municipal Court. Her most important job within the clinic, however, was making sure that the district attorney and the judge viewed her clients as more than a number. “I consider that my most serious responsibility,” she says.
While she gained valuable, hands-on experience in the clinic, she also cherished the camaraderie with her fellow clinic participants. “Being a criminal defense attorney requires redefining what it means to win and I really liked that I always had someone to call if I was having a bad day or someone there to celebrate the win,” she says. Beyond the clinic, O’Rourke found the BU Law community particularly special. “I loved my fellow students at BU Law, she says. My friends were incredibly supportive of my desire to pursue a career in public interest and I don’t think that commitment to public interest exists to the same extent at other top law schools.”
Though her biggest challenge as an assistant public defender is facing judges who are hesitant to side with her clients, the most rewarding part of her job is being able to help people. “I absolutely love fighting for the underdog and often our clients have no one fighting for them except us,” says O’Rourke. “It is a huge burden, but it is also exhilarating and inspiring to advocate on behalf of individuals whose rights are consistently being violated and who need someone to stand up against government power.”
Reported by Erin Phelps (Questrom’16).