A Q&A with Julie McConnell

December 5, 2018
From public defender, to prosecutor, to educator

Prof. Julie McConnell is the 2018 recipient of the Metro Richmond Women's Bar Association's Women of Achievement award. We sat down with Prof. McConnell to learn more about her career path - and her work with the MRWBA. 

You’ve led the Children’s Defense Clinic for eight years now. What changes have you seen in clinical legal education?

I’ve seen the students express an even stronger interest in public interest work and learning practical skills while they’re in law school. It seems that every year, more students are excited to participate in clinics. I sense that perhaps there’s an ethos among the student body right now of wanting to know how they can use their legal education to help people.

What drew you, personally, to public service in the first place?
I think I became interested in public service when I was actually in elementary school. I had the wonderful opportunity to do Meals on Wheels on a weekly basis in a very rural, small, poor town in Mississippi. Taking meals to people that were housebound and were so happy to have company, much less food, was really meaningful and influential in what I wanted to do with my life.

When I graduated from college, I started working for several legislative advocacy and community organizing nonprofits. When I graduated from college, all I knew was that I wanted to be an activist of some type, and I needed to find my niche. So I worked toward that, and I really ended up finding my rhythm at the ACLU, until I went to law school in 1996.

I knew when I came to Richmond Law as a student that I wanted to be a public defender, so that was my sole focus. And in fact that’s what I did, for almost six years. Then I became interested in Mike Herring’s candidacy for Commonwealth’s Attorney. He gave me an opportunity to be a part of his new team. That was a big part of my growth: to practice law from the prospective of a prosecutor in juvenile court.

So how did you make that transition to higher education?

When I was in school here at Richmond Law, I took Adrienne Volenik’s clinic, which at the time was called the Mental Disabilities Clinic but became the Education Rights Clinic. Adrienne has always been a mentor of mine, and I loved the clinical experience. I often talked to her about hoping to someday perhaps do what she did.

When the opening was announced for a new director for the Children’s Defense Clinic, I knew that’s what I wanted to do and I felt that I had the perfect combination of experiences at that point: having worked for nonprofits, in and around children’s rights issues, clerking for a court of appeals judge, being a public defender, being a prosecutor, much of that time working with children and families. It seemed to me to be the perfect preparation for teaching students in the clinic.

Julie McConnell

Are there any moments from your work with students that stand out to you as particular points of pride?

We had a client for whom we were handling post-conviction challenges to his very lengthy sentence for a crime that he committed starting when he was under 14. We had to go back to court four times over a number of years before we finally succeeded in gaining his release. He was convicted and sentenced for a crime that was admittedly terrible – but at the same time that he committed when he was very young. Part of our goal was to help the judge to see that he had grown up, gotten an education, been adequately punished, and that it was time to give him an opportunity to re-enter the community and become a productive citizen.

The entire time he was in the Department of Juvenile Justice he did not get in trouble one time, which is very rare. And he’s done exceptionally well since he was released. Those kinds of outcomes are particularly meaningful for the students in terms of a learning experience because they see the value of really committing to the long-term process of helping the individual to take advantage of every opportunity to improve themselves while they’re incarcerated.

The students were an essential part of that for this client. They went to see him regularly, they wrote briefs and sentencing memorandum, they researched, they prepared witnesses, they drove hours to hearings – and they did it all because they really believed in him. I think their faith in him kept him strong, as well.

Tell us about this recognition from the Metro Richmond Women’s Bar Association. How did you first get involved with the organization?  

When I graduated from law school one of the first things I did was start attending MRWBA luncheons because it’s a wonderful opportunity to meet more seasoned lawyers and find mentors. I became involved again eight years ago when I came to Richmond Law, and quickly became focused on serving on the board and mentoring young lawyers and law students through the organization.

One of the things I focused on was being involved with the public interest committee, and I had the opportunity to be chair of the committee for two years, bringing public-interest focused CLE trainings to the bar as well as work on the Domestic Relations Pamphlet. This is a pamphlet that the MRWBA puts out every two to three years that provides information about the legal system with regards to domestic relations. One of the important factors to realize is that if you are poor and you have matters that you need to attend to in court regarding domestic relations, you’re not entitled to counsel. So many times, people are trying to handle these cases pro se because they have no other choice. The pamphlet is comprehensive and is written in a way that is user friendly, without legalese, so that they at least have some understanding of their rights in the Domestic Relations Court. We provide it in English and Spanish. It gives me great pride to walk in to the Henrico Juvenile & Domestic Relations Court and see the pamphlets on the stand there for people whenever they need it.

I’m humbled to be included in the special group of women that have been honored by the MRWBA. There are some incredible leaders in the community that have been recognized by the bar as Women of Achievement over the years – many of them UR graduates – and it still takes my breath away to be included in that group.

Interview conducted by Emily Cherry.