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In October, the American Bar Association named Shobha Mahadev, clinical professor of law at the Children and Family Justice Center (CFJC) at Northwestern University Pritzker School of Law’s Bluhm Legal Clinic, its Fearless Children’s Lawyer of the Month.
As part of a series celebrating advocacy work resulting in system-wide change that improves the lives of child clients, the ABA recognized Mahadev for her work in the CFJC. Some of her achievements include authoring a handbook for attorneys representing children in juvenile court, leading the Illinois Coalition for the Fair Sentencing of Children to work with partners to end juvenile life without parole and other extreme sentences imposed on youth, and growing the coalition to include faith-based organizations, families, advocates, and pro bono attorneys. Professor Mahadev has combined legal advocacy with pushing for policy change in Illinois, and was recently appointed to the Illinois Supreme Court Committee on Juvenile Courts.
Mahadev says that she doesn’t necessarily think of herself as fearless, although she recalled several years ago, when on the heels of some landmark cases in the U.S. Supreme Court and the Illinois Supreme Court, the CFJC’s work on juvenile sentencing cases was intensifying. “I remember thinking to myself, ‘Now is the time to try to be fearless.’” Even still, she tells law students a little fear is appropriate. “We all feel a sense of anxiety when we’re representing people in serious cases when our decisions can impact their lives. It is appropriate to feel the weight of that work.”
With that said, Mahadev says there is an aspect of being fearless in confronting the things that may scare a lawyer, like all the firsts in a young attorney’s career. “The first time I walked into a courtroom when I was a Clinic student and had to open my mouth and say something to a judge; the first time that I wrote a brief in an appellate situation and turned it into a court; the first time I met somebody who had been incarcerated—those are moments in which I admit to having a little bit of fear, facing that and moving forward, and learning from them.”
Currently, Mahadev and her team represent young people on appeal from their cases in the trial court and track the cases of people facing and serving long sentences for offenses that occurred when they were very young. Additionally, she says, “I’m working on amicus briefing in the Illinois Supreme Court, something that we in the Children and Family Justice Center have long done, where we have supported attorneys who raise interesting and important issues around sentencing and the way we think about young people in our system, how we punish and treat them.”
Mahadev says she has had many role models at the Law School who exemplified fearlessness, like Angela Vigil, JD ’95, one of Mahadev’s first Clinic professors at the Law School. “I watched her act fearlessly in court and in our investigations. I try to model those qualities.” Karen Daniel and Jane Raley, now deceased, who worked in the Center on Wrongful Convictions, also mentored her. “What I loved about them was their fierce dedication to the clients, to the law, and them showing us how to operate with the highest degree of professionalism and righteousness in pushing forward their cases.” Now, she says, her colleagues in the Children and Family Justice Center and the rest of the Bluhm Legal Clinic provide models of fearlessness every day. “I’m lucky to have a family of colleagues who inspire me and support me all the time.”
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