Chemistry Major Ditches the Lab for the Office of the Public Defender

Evan Wilson ’12 had a winding road to law school.

He started as a physical chemistry major at Harvard, but soon realized he enjoyed arguing too much to “spend time in a lab living by the scientific method,” Wilson said.

Wilson took two classes in college that piqued his interest in the law – Justice, and Ethics, Biotechnology, and the Future of Human Nature, and then as a paralegal at law firm Steptoe & Johnson’s Environmental Practice Group, helping with the firm’s pro bono work, including two death penalty cases. He knew he wanted to go to law school, and considered his options.

“American University Washington College of Law, to me, in its atmosphere and values, seemed to embody exactly what I was looking for,” Wilson said. “After discovering WCL in my research, it seemed to fit so well. So many of the things I really cared about were happening here.”

After completing his first year of law school, Wilson spent last summer working in the Office of the Public Defender in Baltimore City in the Felony Trials Division, the top of the heap in terms of criminal cases that the office handles. He performed hands-on, intense work for indigent clients who could not afford their own legal representation. The position was unpaid, and Wilson’s duties included everything from field investigations and witness interviews to legal research.

“There were two main skills you needed. One was research – figuring out random solutions to random problems,” Wilson said of his summer work. “The other was having strong interpersonal skills. You’re trying to meet the needs of extremely busy attorneys and the indigent defendants, two groups that can be tricky.”

In this position, Wilson learned the importance of access to justice for those who have the least.

“The Baltimore Office of the Public Defender is an incredible, wonderful organization - one that I hope I might be a part of someday,” Wilson said. “But the fundamental truth in this country is that most places don’t invest enough to ensure that our justice system adequately handles every case. Even Baltimore, in my opinion one of the best public defender offices out there, could use more resources."

Wilson is interested in bringing international human rights law home domestically. He hopes to do work that ensures indigent defendants are receiving the same level of legal services as those able to afford their own defense attorneys.

“That’s my motivation – you’ve always got to push harder and do more,” Wilson said. “Do innocent people need to spend 36 years in jail, or 25 years on death row, because they can’t afford an attorney that has the time or resources to get them adequate defense? That’s a high price to pay I think.”

Wilson had one piece of advice for students considering a similar path.

“Come to American University Washington College of Law. I think you can get great legal education at many different schools, but I just don’t know that you’ll find a place that is more unafraid of its own subscription to that agenda,” Wilson said. “It is unabashed in its goal of promoting human rights, and I think exactly as it should be as a goal of this institution.”