Two Elon Law students, each inspired by unique life experiences, learned this winter from an Elon Law alum about the strategies and considerations weighed by prosecutors when pursuing justice for victims of crime.
This is the fifth and final profile in a series of occasional stories on residency-in-practice experiences for Elon Law students in the Class of 2021.
Negotiating plea deals with defendants who choose to represent themselves in court for minor crimes. Arguing motions on behalf of the state and addressing judges. Conducting legal research for prosecutors handling felony cases.
There was a little bit of everything for Mallory Hopkins L’21 and Goodrich Thiel L’21 on their Elon Law residencies-in-practice over the winter with the Guilford County District Attorney.
As North Carolina’s court system resumed operations this winter – many trials had been delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic – both students discovered how tasks that included their assistance with DWI cases and other misdemeanors contributed to the administration of justice in Greensboro.
“I appreciated the whole experience,” Hopkins said. “It confirmed for me that criminal prosecution is what I want to do. That was encouraging and now it’s not something I’d have to feel out after law school to see if I like.”
Elon Law’s Residency-in-Practice Program is the only one of its kind in American legal education. Students earn academic credit by working full-time under the supervision of a judge or attorney during the winter or spring of their second year.
The experience is grounded in a learning plan that students develop with their supervisors and a professor to increase proficiency in at least two legal skills and in an area of law practice.
One project made a special impression.
Thiel assisted Guilford County District Attorney Avery Crump with a driver’s license restoration program she started for people who had their licenses revoked in decades past for nonpayment of fines or fees. He described the thrill of identifying individuals who would be notified of their eligibility to have full driving privileges restored.
“That was pretty awesome and one of the highlights for me,” Thiel said. “I was doing something I could tell would make an immediate impact. That’s huge for many people, being able to legally drive again after 20 or 30 years.”
Arguably the residency’s best feature? Learning the inner workings of the county’s criminal justice system from Jackson Barnes, an Elon Law alumnus from the Class of May 2017 now working as an assistant district attorney.
“He’s smart and is known by defense attorneys to be a good attorney,” Hopkins said, “and he was patient and super helpful. I’d ask 5 million questions a day and he’d never get irritated. He always had an answer.”
Hopkins credits a close-knit relationship with her father for her own interest in criminal law. Her father had worked for many years as a federal probation officer, often supervising those managing mental health conditions. He would answer countless questions from his daughter about the job – and Mallory Hopkins remembers the sense of sympathy her father expressed.
“From a young person’s perspective, that was admirable, and I wanted to be like him!” she recalls. “We’d have conversations about what he was doing on a day-to-day basis.”
An English major at Presbyterian College where she played women’s soccer, Hopkins confirmed a passion for the legal profession in a junior year course on business law. Two years later she enrolled at Elon Law.
Thiel followed a different path. Now in his mid 30s, the UNC Greensboro graduate worked for years after college in the food service industry before enrolling in 2017 in a paralegal program at Guilford Technical Community College. His instructors, including Pamela Hollern and current Guilford County Clerk of Court Lisa Johnson-Tonkins, encouraged him to pursue law school.
“I’ve always felt like I wanted to be a part of the solution for someone,” he said. “I’ll watch the news and hear a lot about problems, but you don’t hear a lot about the helpers. It’s cliche, I know, but I want to be able to help people. I was punching a clock and stocking a shelf or making food in a restaurant. It never felt like I was directly making the world a better place.”
As a teenager and young adult who encountered his own brushes with the law, Thiel knows the comfort that an effective lawyer provides. “I remember the sense of calm I’d feel when I’d walk into my lawyer’s office, being able to talk with him and feel at ease,” he said. “Walking into his office, I knew he could give it to me straight, and I could get my life on track.”
What’s next for both students? Commencement in December, followed by the February 2022 bar exam, and eventually, legal positions in the criminal justice system. “I’ve loved all my criminal law classes and I wanted to do a residency in criminal law to make sure I enjoy it,” Hopkins said. “My residency affirmed everything for me.”
Thiel is just as motivated to work in criminal law. “I want to be able to offer the same kind of calm and assurance that I experienced as a teen from my lawyer, whether in criminal defense with my clients, or as a prosecutor and with victims,” he said. “I want to pay it forward.”