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Q&A: Professor Jennifer Collins

Professor Jennifer Collins, teaches criminal and  family law. The 2009 winner of the Jurist Excellence in Teaching Award graduated from Harvard Law School, where she worked on the Law Review with President Barack Obama. She served as an assistant U.S. Attorney in Washington, D.C., for almost eight years and clerked for Judge Dorothy Nelson of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. She is co-author of a recent book entitled, “Privilege or Punish: Criminal Justice and the Challenge of Family Ties” (Oxford University Press 2009, with Dan Markel and Ethan Leib).  In February 2009, Collins was interviewed as part of the ‘Conversation With…’ series. The excerpts below are based on that conversation.  Q What were your interactions with President Barack Obama during law school?

A People always ask if we actually knew each other because Harvard was a big place, and yes, we actually did because we were on the Law Review together. At least at Harvard, being on the Law Review meant you basically lived in the Law Review office building. We all spent several hours a day there for two years. One of my friends who was on the Law Review with us described it after the election, ‘It’s like knowing Jesus Christ in kindergarten.’ I don’t know that I would go quite that far, but it is weird to think that one of my classmates is now the president.

Q What led to your interest in family law?

A I really quickly realized as a prosecutor that you are as much a social worker as you are a prosecutor. People would walk into your office – victims, witnesses, defendants – under truly just desperate circumstances. We kept a clothing room in the U.S. Attorney’s Office because some of my prostitute witnesses literally did not have an appropriate outfit that they could wear into court. We’d be dealing with people who were struggling with drug abuse or very young children having children themselves. You just spend so much time on the family aspects of these people’s lives. I think one of the things that makes you a good prosecutor is to care equally about the victims and their families and the defendants and their families.

Q Has there been any media coverage of your cases?

A I periodically get calls from shows like “Forensic Files” or “Solved” and HBO did a documentary on one of my cases called, “Thug Life in D.C.,” about a guy who shot a lot of people, unfortunately. They asked me to participate during the trial and, of course, I couldn’t, but I was able to use some of the first few minutes of the show for the sentencing in my case. A Discovery Channel show is looking at doing a piece on the series of murders at Gallaudet University. There was a series of murders on campus, and it turned out that a fellow student at Gallaudet was just a true serial killer, probably one of the few true serial killers I worked with. I’m not sure if I am going to talk to the Discovery Channel. I’m still very protective of the families I worked with, and I don’t want to exploit their pain for any sort of notoriety.

Q  Any employment advice for current students?

A  I do feel that people put pressure on themselves to get the perfect first job, and I think you need to look at your career as a journey. My first law firm job, while a good job, was not the perfect job for me.  You have to recognize that every aspect of your career is a stepping stone, and where you land initially is not where you are going to end up.