It may not be the gap between the 99 percent and the 1 percent, but an enormous void can be found in the world of criminal justice. It is the gap between individuals who are poor enough to qualify for a public defender, and those who can afford a private attorney. Those in the middle may make enough to cover the rent, but not to retain counsel. Among the few standing in that gap is Stephanie Boucher ’06, an attorney and director of the Minnesota Law Collective.
“If you’re not living under a bridge, there’s a good chance you won’t qualify for a public defender. And if you have to choose between groceries and a lawyer, the macaroni and cheese will win every time,” Boucher said. That’s why the collective charges flat fees, on a sliding-scale basis. “We insist that our clients have ‘some skin in the game,’” Boucher said, “so that they don’t take the legal services for granted, and so that the collective can survive to help the next person who walks in.” The collective’s two attorney- directors and five clerks represent clients in criminal defense matters, appeals, expungements and in tribal court. The staff offers legal representa-tion that is personal and approachable.
“Some people really do need to be in jail for the benefit of the rest of us,” Boucher said. “The vast majority, however, are capable of change. There’s a big difference between being a danger to society and having done something incredibly stupid once.”
Drawn to a Legal Career
Boucher’s combination of empathy and legal skills arise from a wide and varied background. After growing up close to the Canadian border in Rolette, N.D. – “a great place to be from” – she moved to New York City to be a nanny. There, she learned that there was a great deal of money in the world, that it made a great deal of difference and that none of it would be hers without higher education.
So she left New York and returned to the Midwest to attend the University of Minnesota. After graduation, she worked for a diversity-consulting firm, where she provided training as part of a mixed gender, multicultural team.
When her son, Nico, was born in 1997, she decided she needed a job that didn’t require so much travel. So, she went to work making capacitors at Medtronic.
These jobs revealed Boucher’s interest in the law. Diversity training usually took place as the result of a court order, and Boucher found that she was more interested in the law suits than in the diversity training. She also found herself learning about compliance issues at Medtronic.
Personality played a part as well. “My mother said that anyone this argumentative should get paid for it,” Boucher smiled. “Once again, she was right.” When Boucher decided to pursue legal studies, the University of St. Thomas School of Law was an obvious choice. “This place isn’t about beating the humanity out of you while you’re becoming educated in the law,” she said.
She remembers the first moment of the first day of class. She was both terrified and ready to go. She overheard a conversation between two young 1Ls about all the expensive supplies you have to buy to clean a bathroom. Apparently they had always lived in dorms and this was a new experience. As a woman with a family and a mortgage, Boucher wondered what she had gotten herself into. “By third year, those young women and I shared notes, and they both knew my son. There was a camaraderie at the School of Law that I hadn’t expected, and couldn’t have done without,” she said.
She described attending law school as, “a constant struggle between motherhood and legal studies.” One day during her first year, she was studying at home when her 6-year-old set up his toy train under her desk. It was in the way; she had to lift up her feet as the train went by. When asked why he had put his train there, he said it was the only way he could be around her. This wake-up call caused Boucher to reprioritize her life to spend more time with him, even though her grades suffered as a result.
Nonetheless, she received the “Living the Mission” award for professional preparation for her work as a writing fellow, both helping 1Ls with their legal writing and guiding them through that confusing first year.
The Minnesota Law Collective’s Work
A sense of shared humanity, plus a passion for social justice, connects Boucher’s experience at the School of Law and the Minnesota Law Collective. In addition to providing legal rep-resentation, Boucher shares a lot of information and holds a lot of hands. She remembered a client charged with misdemeanor theft, who suffered from anxiety and depression. For this client, compassion was as important as legal representation.
The collective also lobbies the Minnesota Legislature on issues of University of St. Thomas School of Law SUMMER 2012 27 social justice. “We’re trying to lessen the disconnect between the law and the people it’s supposed to serve,” Boucher said. For example, Boucher supported a bill that could close juvenile proceedings for 16- and 17-year- olds. This would prevent their records from becoming public, thereby smoothing the way to their reintegration into society.
The effort to let people back into society is the impetus for Boucher’s work on expungements. An expungement would have changed the life of a man she worked with who had spent time in prison. He understood what it was like on the inside, and began studying to be a psychologist with the goal of serving an inmate population. Once he realized that his criminal record would prevent his licensure as a therapist, he dropped out of school.
It’s situations like these that inspire Boucher to create change. She loves her job because she knows, “that I am all that is standing between my vulnerable client and the hammer of the law. I’m using my strength, passion and education to do something right and something important,” she said.
And the job has its challenges. Setting and maintaining healthy boundaries can be difficult when surrounded by more needs than you can meet. “I have a sense that so many in the criminal justice system aren’t really criminals,” Boucher said. “They were unable to cure an initial defect, and it mushroomed into a criminal situation.”
Another challenge is learning on the job. Because of the breadth of issues she deals with, and her relative inexperience as an attorney, she’s had to learn a lot quickly. The School of Law community has proved invaluable for Boucher, who has called on fellow alumni with specific skills. Invariably, they have responded with a remark-able generosity of spirit. She remembered calling a classmate – one who was little more than an acquaintance – who quickly found an answer to a specific real-estate law question that would have taken Boucher hours to locate.
In the end, Boucher sees the enormous gap between those who can afford legal representation and those who are assigned a public defender as an issue of social justice. She said that the School of Law helped her gain the legal skills and supported her passion to stand in that gap and fight for others’ rights.
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