As a public defender, Claire Donohue represented dozens of clients with mental health problems and substance use disorders. She says her arguments in negotiations and plea conferences included in-depth examinations of their lived experiences, a strategy that helped judges and district attorneys see defendants as complex people whose personal struggles may have contributed to their crimes.
“Compelling arguments for mitigation or dismissals required contextualizing who my clients were as people and what was going on in their lives,” says Donohue, who worked as a trial lawyer for the Committee for Public Counsel Services in Massachusetts from 2006 to 2009.
Donohue attributes her compassionate approach to defending clients to her experience in the M.S.W/J.D. dual degree program at Boston College, where she studied law and social work from 2001 to 2005. She says the program, offered through the School of Social Work and the Law School, taught her the importance of putting people at the center of her practice—a skill that has served her well not only as a public defender, but also as a professor training the next generation of empathetic lawyers.
As an assistant clinical professor in the Law School for the past seven years, Donohue has incorporated social work methodology with legal theory and practice. She has led seminars on cultural humility, secondary trauma, and mental illness and the law through the Law School’s Center for Experiential Learning, which supports students not merely in becoming excellent lawyers, but in finding meaningful work in service to others that will enrich their communities. She has helped students create re-entry plans for people who have been exonerated for crimes they did not commit through the center’s Innocence Program, where lawyers-in-training study the problem of erroneous convictions and work to remedy these injustices. And she has directed the center’s Family Justice Litigation Law Clinic, where students represent low-income clients in civil and administrative matters related to family law and child welfare.
“Both social workers and lawyers are more likely than not to find people at times of chaos and therefore have the temptation of solving problems as opposed to exploring them and partnering with their clients to address them,” says Donohue. “We work to help law students develop a more empathic and contextualized understanding of what it is they’re doing and avoid tendencies of white saviorism.”
Donohue found her calling accidentally, choosing to serve clients and students alike by combining social work interventions with legal practice as a result of a singular experience more than 20 years ago.
After graduating from Cornell University with a degree in policy analysis in 2000, she applied to law school and then took a gap year to volunteer for AmeriCorps. During that year, she worked for Westchester Residential Opportunities, a nonprofit organization in Westchester County, New York, whose mission is to promote equal, affordable, and accessible housing for all residents in the region.
While Donohue helped women apply for grants that would finance their ability to become first-time home owners, she got a close look at how social workers on her team assisted some of the most vulnerable people in the community. She noticed their patience, their compassion—their sheer regard for the well-being of people struggling in their day-to-day lives—and was struck by how much they cared for their clients.
This observation shifted her focus from numbers and charts to people and relationships, compelling her to pursue a degree in social work alongside a degree in law. “I’m going to go in and I’m going to pull the data and I’m going to do the research. That was what my undergrad degree had me set up to be thinking about,” says Donohue. “And all of a sudden I was like, ‘No, I’m going to be in proximity to people and I’m going to be in conversation with people.’ These social workers were really good at that, and that was what inspired me.”
“Both social workers and lawyers are more likely than not to find people at times of chaos and therefore have the temptation of solving problems as opposed to exploring them and partnering with their clients to address them. We work to help law students develop a more empathic and contextualized understanding of what it is they’re doing and avoid tendencies of white saviorism.”
Donohue credits a field placement at the District Court in Dorchester, Massachusetts, with cementing her interest in becoming a public defender. But she also says that the structure of the M.S.W./J.D. program prepared her to shift the focus of her practice from criminal law to civil law.
The dual degree program asks students to be particularly nimble in the first two years of a four-year journey, when they will take one full year of social work courses and one full year of law courses. Donohue drew on this experience—this feeling of moving between different disciples with different terminology and methodology—when she joined the faculty at the George Washington University School of Law in 2013 as a visiting professor.
Donohue had worked in criminal law for seven years, a stint that included three years in which she independently briefed, filed, and argued post-conviction appeals. And now she was teaching a seminar on family law and guiding students through domestic relations cases involving custody, child support, and divorce.
“I think a large part of my feeling brave enough to do that was knowing that I could hold on to not knowing totally what I’m doing, or I can hold space for feeling a little unsure of what language we use here, how we behave here,” she says. “Because I had that experience of moving in between two different degrees, two different professions, two different spaces.”
As the faculty advisor for the dual degree program, Donohue urges students to leave their comfort zones. For example, she points to students who say they want to become public defenders and fail to see the value in completing field placements to sharpen their clinical skills. Donohue suggests they work at a health clinic or a hospital for a year, providing one-on-one therapy and learning the ins and outs of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.
“I know you don’t see how you need it, which is why you need to go check it out. And then you will know why,” Donohue tells students. “And even if you’re not going to ever need to diagnose people, even if you won’t need to bill insurance, understanding diagnostics and assessments is quite interesting and quite important in ways that you might not realize.”
She is living proof that the dual degree pays off, that investing in social work and law prepares people in both helping professions to provide better service to clients and constituencies—especially those who live in poverty or are disadvantaged.
“One set of training tells me to see things this way and to act this way. And another set of training has a different focus,” says Donohue. “But I held onto a belief that neither one was wrong, and that both had something to offer. That ended up being hugely important to me, and I think it helped me to be a more imaginative problem solver and ultimately a better advocate.”