This week, Liz Sher celebrates 25 years as a YRJ Staff Attorney. We asked Liz to share about her career, her insights into juvenile court, and how she thinks things have changed for her clients.
You’ve been working in public defense for 25 years, what first led you to this work? Why did you choose juvenile defense as a specialty?
I began my career as a National Park Service Ranger in the Southwest, my undergraduate degree was in wildlife management. I started at Canyonlands National Park and then eventually moved to Grand Canyon National Park. There I was a naturalist; I conducted walk, talks, and evening programs for up to 500 people. After seven years in the Park Service I had to decide if I wanted to become a “lifer” or if I wanted to move on to something else. Law school had always been at the back of my mind. I come from a long line of lawyers–my father, brother and uncle are all lawyers. So, environmental law became my goal; I was really interested in public lands management, having come from the park service. Around 1989 I was working as a ranger and studying for the LSAT. I set my sights on Oregon, and on Lewis and Clark Law School which had one of the top environmental law programs in the country at the time. Juvenile court was not in my mind at all.
When I graduated law school in 1993 the job market was really rough, so I started looking into my second choice which was criminal law. I started applying for clerkships with the circuit court and in 1994 I was hired as a clerk by Linda Bergman, a judge in Multnomah County. I had never really heard of juvenile law but in her courtroom, I was in the midst of it. Judge Bergman was awesome and taught me so much.
Then in 1995, the Juvenile Court Improvement Project (where prominent juvenile lawyers made recommendations on improving the court) started. Lynn Travis, an experienced lawyer at Youth, Rights & Justice (then called the Juvenile Rights Project) took a one-year leave to participate, and I was hired to fill in.
At JRP I had my first victory, with less than six months experience, in a termination of parental rights case representing a teenage mom. At the end of the trial the judge said, “You’re either in these people’s lives or you’re out.” And he denied the state’s petition. The client was next to me and she started to cry, and I said, “That means we won,” and she said, “I know!”
There is such a baptism by fire in this job, no matter how much you train someone. You really just have to have the experience. I now feel like I can handle anything at any time, any judge, any situation. That is where the experience is so valuable.
When you first started this work, what was most surprising to you about public defense?
I don’t think you can prepare yourself for just the sheer number of cases. The surprise was the amount of mental and physical fatigue I felt. I was exhausted. During the winter of my first year, I had constant cold…I used to think the flu shot was a racket. From 1996 on, I have been first in line. You have to learn all the lingo. Even after working for a juvenile court judge, I did not get it; how much goes in to preparing. It was overwhelming the sheer physical toll it takes on you, along with emotional and psychological toll. Things like “vicarious trauma” were not in the lingo when I started. Walking into this world that most people don’t see, and you’re enmeshed in them and you hear the stories these kids have been exposed to. It was naiveté, it is overwhelming to see how hard it is. I needed an outlet had to have some way to shut my mind off a little bit. That’s where my horse comes in.
What inspires you? What motivates you?
In an odd way, the work is rewarding, but maybe not in the way you think. You take your victories where you find them—it’s not always a “not guilty” verdict at trial or an approved motion to dismiss. I think it’s the small victories. Another piece is the camaraderie, in our office but also in our whole neck of the woods. There’s a group of people that feel this work, a whole network—teachers, social workers, parent mentors. There’s a lot of mutual respect out there. I feel like I have a decent reputation with the court, and I take pride in that.
Sometimes, you get your thanks [from clients] but you don’t expect it. When you get a client that says, “You’re the only person who stood up for me,” it’s really valuable. It really is a calling. I wouldn’t have pictured myself here 26 years ago. This is just sort of good luck for me to have found this place with these people. I feel really fortunate.
How have things changed during your career? Do you see outcomes improving for our clients? What is the biggest challenge facing our clients?
There have been serious changes in the state of Oregon, especially changes that are now going into effect with changes in sex offender registration and some changes in dependency law. What’s really changed, and we’ve led the way on this, is more comprehensive representation—including on issues around education and immigration. We have helped parents and foster parents. I do think the outcomes are getting better. I have seen big changes. For a period of time in the 90’s it was so much methamphetamines, but that changed because the laws changed. Poverty is one thing that hasn’t changed. What I think there are more of is homeless youth, not just our clients but in general.
There have been some real positives, our appellate attorneys and legislative people have done a great job. I feel like we’ve made some real inroads on all of those things over the years. It’s kind of like chasing a feather, can’t quite catch, there’s always something else. It’s always going to be elusive when you have child abuse and neglect and crime. But I have this strong feeling that outcomes are better, and our practice is better. We’ve always been up on the law but now were shaping the law with our work in issues like expunction and sex offender registration. I’m also really proud of our immigration law practice. They help inform our own practice for clients who are facing issues with immigration.
This kind of thing keeps me going, I might not be personally involved but the strides that YRJ makes make me a better lawyer and a better advocate. I’ve tried to move with the times and help with new challenges, improve my practice on a micro level as we improve on a macro level.
What would you tell a new lawyer, just starting out? Or someone who is considering public defense as a career?
I would suggest that they observe and talk to someone in the practice. Go to court, observe hearings, and use your connections. There really is no other way to learn but on the job. You have to be able to be able to jump from thing to thing to thing—to juggle. You’ll have so many things going on and then you’ll have a “fire” come up that you’ve got to deal with. You can’t come into this work lightly, and really have to be prepared for things that will shock you. You also have to have something to ground you, or it can consume your life. Learn as much as you can before you do it.
What made you choose YRJ? What has kept you here for 25 years?
Admiration and sheer luck! Being in the right place at the right time. This work is something that still calls to me. There are so many things that are heartbreaking but there are so many things that are great. I would never want to work anywhere else.