Vidhi Bamzai (’18) talks to Sarah Bidinger (’15) about her work as an impact litigator with the Southern Poverty Law Center.
Life can take you crazy places, but a little bit of passion and some good old Southern charm can make any place feel like home. By checking the “send me anywhere” box on a Teach for America application, Sarah Bidinger (’15) found herself in rural Forest City, Arkansas, where she developed a passion for civil rights and criminal justice reform that have grown into a legal career. Now, Sarah is in her second year as a legal fellow with the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) in Jackson, Mississippi. She works on the criminal justice reform team helping to challenge the inadequate treatment of the thousands of inmates in Mississippi’s correctional facilities. This includes addressing the provision of medical and mental health care and general safety standards in place at these facilities.
In what seems like a crazy coincidence, I’m lucky enough to be following Sarah’s footsteps—literally. Also a former Teach for America Corps Member, I developed a passion for criminal justice reform while at BU Law. Last summer, I worked as a legal intern in the SPLC’s Montgomery, Alabama office, where I met Sarah, and I’ll be taking over as the new legal fellow in the Jackson office come fall 2018. I caught up with Sarah recently to learn more about her work and journey to become an impact litigator at one of the nation’s most prestigious civil rights organizations.
How did you get interested in criminal justice reform and impact litigation?
It started during my time as a teacher in Arkansas—a lot of the hardships my students were facing—both academically and socially—led me to think about the world differently, and I was interested in looking for different ways to address systemic inequities. I was exposed to a region of the country that faced issues I had only read about and it made me realize that there was an awful lot of work left to be done in the United States. These are pervasive and systemic problems that need to be addressed, and impact litigation is a way to have large scale influence.
What are you doing with the SPLC right now?
I am a legal fellow on the criminal justice reform team, working on three main areas:
- Challenging conditions of confinement in Mississippi, including an Eighth Amendment lawsuit addressing the conditions at East Mississippi Correctional Facility, the state’s designated facility for mentally ill prisoners, as well as monitoring the implementation of a consent decree at a juvenile detention center
- Researching juvenile justice issues to eliminate the practice of trying children as adults
- Doing some direct advocacy to effectuate the Supreme Court’s Miller v. Alabama decision, which made it unconstitutional to sentence a child to mandatory life without parole
How did BU Law prepare you for this job?
The International Human Rights Clinic was a great experience because I learned a lot of advocacy and writing skills that I still apply and use. Even though it addressed a slightly different topic—human rights, as opposed to civil rights—and operated in a different forum, it was a very valuable experience. I also took a lot of classes that required me to analyze and think at a higher level. The ways professors taught their classes and the focus on critical thinking and developing an analytic mindset—which I think was unique to BU—has allowed me to take on this job. I was also a research assistant for Professors Fisher, Maclin, and Goldenziel throughout law school and the experience of research, writing, turning over projects, and getting feedback really helped me for my career.
Is there a class that you use a lot?
I deal frequently with constitutional law in my job and Constitutional Law with Professor Maclin most certainly gave me grounding in both constitutional principles and applying, arguing, and analyzing those principles. I also cannot tell you how often I refer back to my notes from my Federal Rules of Civil Procedure class with Professor Marshall: When you’re litigating there’s nothing that matters more than the federal rules. Also, First Amendment with Professor Lahav really changed the way I think about the law because there are so many ways in which a single sentence can be interpreted, applied, and can affect people.
Do you have any advice for current and incoming law students?
Don’t lose sight of the reason you went to or are thinking about going to law school. Once you start, it can be really tempting to take the first job you are offered, and that almost certainly will not be a public interest job. Don’t give up on the vision and the dream you came in with. Be open to what public interest jobs can look like; if you take the private route, take advantage of the pro bono opportunities that will be available to you. Find your passion and that will help you find your career path as an attorney.
Read “Inside a Private Prison: Blood, Suicide and Poorly Paid Guards,” by Timothy Williams of the New York Times for more information on Sarah’s current work at the Southern Poverty Law Center.
Reported by Vidhi Bamzai (’18)
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