In what ways do you strengthen your community through the above role/position?

My position allows me to advocate for an extremely marginalized population. As a public defender, I am able to stand with people and fight for them when others may have turned against them. I am able to be a barrier (or I try to be...) between racial injustice in policing and my clients. I am able to help them navigate the criminal justice system in a way that hopefully makes it less harmful. I learn so much from my clients. One thing I have been humbled by is their sheer resilience. So many are simply trying to survive and are truly only hindered by the lasting consequences of their criminal convictions. In working to vacate criminal records for trafficking survivors, I help my clients gets closer to the futures that they want.

Are there any obstacles you struggle(d) to overcome, specific to being a woman in your role?

Apart from the occasional run in with a dismissive judge or prosecutor, no, I've been fairly fortunate. Unfortunately, most female attorneys have experienced being dismissed or spoken down to by a judge. Sadly it's a right of passage.

What is the best (most rewarding, empowering, enjoyable) part of what you do?

I love hearing from clients years after we've met. Knowing that they know that I'm someone that they trust, who they can turn to when things get tough. Winning trials is exhilarating, but other victories, such as helping a client find shelter, get food stamps, or enroll in a GED program are also very rewarding. The best part of what I do, though, involves vacating (erasing) prostitution convictions for survivors of trafficking. This amazing law allows survivors to vacate their records upon a showing that they were trafficked through force, fraud, or coercion, into sex work. Vacatur can be transformative for clients and I love being a part of that. 

Do you have any advice for women and girls who may look to follow in your footsteps or pursue a course in a similar field? 

Yes! Go to a law school that has a strong loan forgiveness program or go where you can get scholarships! Public interest law is so fulfilling, but it can be hard to juggle with student loans. I attended a state school, CUNY School of Law, which was an amazing experience and quite affordable comparatively.


Abigail Swenstein

Staff Attorney at The Legal Aid Society's Criminal Defense Practice.

Her unit specializes in advocacy for trafficking victims and sex workers who are criminal justice involved.