The Bronx Defenders’ tagline—“redefining public defense”—reflects the nonprofit’s ambitious and expansive vision. Every year, the organization defends 27,000 low-income Bronx residents in criminal, civil, family law, and immigration matters. It has received national attention for its effective advocacy and holistic client approach.
This summer, Jasmine Bridges 3L served as a summer intern in The Bronx Defenders’ Criminal Defense Practice.
One of the most important lessons for interns at The Bronx Defenders is understanding the organization’s “holistic defense” philosophy, says Gloria Chacon ’13, a Staff Attorney in the Immigrant Defense Practice.
“Holistic defense is the backbone of The Bronx Defenders,” Chacon says. “It means that we are a one-stop shop for a client’s overlapping legal needs, which might include housing, employment, and immigration.”
Interns spend a week learning about the concept of holistic defense and how The Bronx Defenders’ practice groups work together on behalf of each client.
“We want our interns to see that our decision-making is informed by how it could impact the other parts of a client’s life,” she says.
Interns are assigned to a specific practice group, where they shadow one or more attorneys. They also come together for shared workshops each week, which are run by attorneys who specialize in the subject matter. Topics have included openings, closings, and cross-examinations.
Jeremiah Rygus ’13 is a Staff Attorney and DNA Specialist in the Criminal Defense Practice, where Bridges interned.
“What we do for interns is unique and special,” he says. “Our training goes beyond a traditional trial advocacy program. It’s shaped by, and includes lots of direct feedback from, seasoned criminal defense attorneys. Our goal is to ensure that wherever your career takes you, you’ll become a great public defender and you’ll help change the culture.”
Chacon says that the program offers interns support and personalized attention.
“Our staff are very available to interns,” she says. “The Bronx Defenders hosts intern events, and we train interns ourselves because we realize the importance of that professional contact.”
Interns also have the chance to immerse themselves in the Bronx legal community by interfacing with prosecutors, court staff, civil legal advocates, and social workers.
Bridges says that The Bronx Defenders’ hands-on approach helped her fully understand the nature of public defense work.
“I thought I would be spending a lot of time in court observing, but my supervisors threw me to the wolves in the best possible way,” she says. “The first week after training, I was going on the record in court. I was meeting with clients. I was excited and honored to be given that responsibility.”’
Her most memorable experience involved a client who was facing felony charges. With encouragement from the Bronx Defenders legal team, the client testified before a grand jury.
“This client was clearly innocent and very compelling,” Bridges recalls. “He was freed of all charges because he told his story. I was ecstatic when I heard the news.”
Bridges says that the internship has solidified her commitment to becoming a public defender. “I always knew I wanted to be in the public defense sphere, but there are so many options within that sphere,” she says. “Now I know that criminal defense is exactly where I need to be.”
She’s also grateful that alumni Chacon and Rygus became her mentors.
“Gloria and Jeremiah were so supportive, and they clearly wanted me to succeed,” she says.
The Alumni View
For Chacon, attending NYLS and working for the Safe Passage Project (housed on NYLS’s campus), were key building blocks in her career at The Bronx Defenders.
“There is an important connection between The Bronx Defenders and NYLS,” she says. “We have alumni here and are happy to be a resource for NYLS students as they come. I was grateful for the opportunity to mentor Jasmine, and I’m excited to welcome more NYLS interns and staff members in the future.”
“When we get an NYLS student here, our community rallies around the person to make sure they’re having a great experience and getting what they need,” says Rygus.
“I’m excited that NYLS students wants to pursue indigent defense despite the challenges of this field. As alumni, doing whatever we can to foster that sense of community for NYLS students is important and worthwhile.”