Changing justice system through mentoring
Whether she’s in a public defender’s office or standing at the front of a lecture hall – and even when she’s trekking through the Himalayas, developing legal aid offices in Nepal – Priya Lakhi ’99 has consistently centered her career on mentorship.
The visiting associate professor of law at Roger Williams University and interim director of its Criminal Defense Clinic lights up when reflecting on the times she was taken under lawyers’ wings as an intern.
“The impact of having good teachers and training lawyers is something that I’m passionate about,” she said. “Mentors are basically who made me the lawyer I am, and I would like to be that for today’s students.”
Her interest in criminal law stemmed from a college job at the Ohio Public Defender’s Office.
“It was through that experience I was able to see the injustices of the criminal justice system and see what the system was really all about,” she said. “I was specifically working with lawyers who were handling death penalty cases, and those lawyers started to mentor me. They’re the ones that encouraged me to go to law school and pursue this kind of work.”
She eventually started mentoring law school interns as well, providing advice to students regarding their career paths and schooling concerns.
“I found myself being drawn to helping students figure out their path just in the same way it was figured out for me with my mentors,” she said.
After graduating from The Ohio State University Moritz College of Law, Lakhi worked as an attorney at the Georgia Capital Defender Office, then at county public defenders offices in Georgia, and later the Legal Aid Society of New York.
Coupling her knack for training lawyers and her public defender expertise, Lakhi traveled to Nepal for four months in 2009 with the International Legal Foundation to help develop the first legal aid and public defender offices there. Because Nepal was transitioning from a monarchy to a democracy, the country was in post-conflict at the time and had no pre-existing public defense system.
Lakhi’s role, as part of a team of lawyers with the foundation, was to train Nepali lawyers on all aspects of the justice system – from what a public defender system is to how to practice criminal defense.
“We were training them on the constitutional principles of how to be an effective criminal defense attorney and a good lawyer, (such as) how to conduct an interview and talk to witnesses,” Lakhi said.
The public defender’s system she helped build is still in existence with more than five offices and 17 lawyers. Lakhi’s contributions not only made a substantial impact on Nepal’s legal system, but a positive impact on her.
“The lawyers I worked with were dedicated and fearless individuals who wanted to make sure their clients’ rights were protected,” she said. “The people are lovely and welcoming. It’s such a beautiful country with a rich history. I felt honored to just be a part of it and was inspired by the tenacity of the lawyers I got to work with.”
After her stint in Nepal, Lakhi returned to Atlanta, where she worked as a senior staff attorney at the Georgia Capital Defender Office. She also taught as an adjunct professor at Emory University School of Law and Georgia State University College of Law. When the opportunity presented itself to teach full-time as a visiting professor at Roger Williams, Lakhi said she couldn’t pass it up.
“Teaching is remarkably rewarding. It’s wonderful to be able to help clients, but also help students along the way figure out the right way to do the work,” she said. “The best part about teaching is watching my students bloom into fierce advocates.”
After her visit at Roger Williams, Lakhi said she’ll likely return to Atlanta to continue her practice – with plans to open her own firm. Even though she’ll be out of the classroom, she said she’ll continue mentoring lawyers in an effort to better the justice system.
“If you help to train great lawyers, then ultimately you’re helping all of our future clients,” she said. “It hopefully has a ripple effect that one lawyer will make a difference in one courtroom in one courthouse … and hopefully we can improve a broken system.”
This article was written by Sarah Pfledderer.