Student Spotlight: Claudia Leonor, L’23

May 19, 2023

As we celebrate Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, we’re sharing how some of our Class of 2023 Law Spiders are impacted and empowed by their identities. Students like Claudia Leonor, L’23, whose experience as and ESL teacher inspired her to persue a career in law and advocate for her former students.

Why did you decide to attend law school? Why Richmond Law, in particular?

Before law school, I taught English as a Second Language to immigrant students in Washington, DC. I witnessed how immigrant students and children of color were/are uniquely postured in the school-to-prison pipeline, and I saw how the lack of community infrastructure further harmed my students. On a micro level, I began to understand how the justice system criminalizes race, poverty, and mental illness and that absolutizes people to their worst moments. Where is the dignity and justice in a prison system that ignores the structural factors that incentivize people to act in ways deemed criminal? As an ESL teacher, I could not find the answers I sought. I believed that going to law school would help me to ascertain a more equitable form of justice for marginalized groups of people, particularly at the nexus of race, immigration status, and socio-economic status. And it has.

How has being a member of APALSA benefited your Richmond Law experience? 

I came to law school during the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, and it was difficult for me to adjust to life in Richmond and to law school in general. Law school is a very different beast from college and work, and while it was exciting to be learning about the law and how it shapes people’s lives, it was also difficult to get used to the sheer amount of work and reading and to start a new chapter in my social and professional life.

As a 1L, APALSA was a safe space for me to bond with other Asian students who understood what I was going through. I felt safe around other APALSA members to be myself—to ask my silly (and sometimes stupid) questions about how to make friends with people at school and network with legal professionals when everything went virtual, as well as my more serious questions about what it meant to be Asian during a pandemic that has hearkened unprecedented levels of hate and violence towards the broader Asian-American community.

What are your career plans? 

After taking the bar exam in July, I will begin working for the Office of the Arlington County Commonwealth’s Attorney as an Assistant Commonwealth Attorney. I hope to one day serve as a U.S. Attorney. I have always been drawn to working in criminal law but have felt torn between prosecution and criminal defense work. Through my work with the U.S. Attorney’s Office, Richmond Law’s Wrongful Convictions Clinic, and federal judges in the Eastern District of Virginia, I began to understand what it meant to achieve justice—to balance retribution and accountability, with an understanding of the social conditions and disparities that engender criminal behavior in the first place.

May is Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month. What does being an Asian American lawyer mean to you? What impact do you hope to make on the legal system after you graduate?

Being an Asian-American lawyer in criminal law, and specifically being an Asian woman lawyer, has meant that I had to become my own role model. When I was younger, I used to look at other people and their lives and accomplishments and dream about what my life could be one day. But you can’t do that when there are very few people walking the path you dream of. While there is already a scarce amount of Asian-American attorneys in the legal profession, there is an even smaller amount of Asian women who end up working in criminal law. During my time in law school, I only ever encountered one other Asian female student who wanted to go into criminal law and one Asian female prosecutor.

I have learned that sometimes, you make the path you seek by walking your own steps. You are the architect of your ambition, and you need to inspire yourself. No one can tell you what or how your dreams should look like—only you can. I hope that I can help mentor other Asian women law students and attorneys to seek, protect, and chase their dreams. I hope that we can all find inspiration within ourselves.

In one word, how would you describe your experience at Richmond Law?