Name: Laura Nirider
Length of time at current gig: Eight years
Education: Bachelor of arts with honours in political science, University of Chicago; Juris Doctor, Northwestern University School of Law
Typical hours: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., although that can vary a lot depending on what I’m doing. If I have court, sometimes I need to get there really early. If I’m out interviewing witnesses, sometimes I need to stay out late.
What kind of preparation do you do before you get to work, so you’re on the ball when you arrive?
In the mornings I play with my older son [he’s three], and I feed the baby [seven weeks old]. I make sure they’re happy, they’ve had their breakfast and they’re ready for their day. It’s also important for me to connect with my family because it helps me remember that the clients I’m serving have their own families who need me to fight for them as hard as I possibly can. It’s a reminder of what’s important.
What’s the first thing you do when you get to work?
I check the news. If we hear about a case that involves a false confession or a situation that looks a little fishy, like Brendan Dassey’s case [shown in Making a Murderer], we want to get involved.
You are also the co-director of Northwestern University’s Center on Wrongful Convictions of Youth (CWCY). What is the mood like there?
The attorneys who work there are incredibly compassionate, intelligent people who are always willing to put their clients before them, which is truly rare, I think. In addition to that, we’re also professors at a law school, so we’re surrounded by students who transform from people who are just learning about these issues for the first time to people who are able to take on the entire criminal justice system themselves. It’s an inspiring thing to watch.
What draws you to cases like Brendan Dassey’s, where someone has been potentially wrongfully convicted?
I think it’s the same thing that is drawing in millions of people around the country to watch Making a Murderer. Once you hear these stories, you can’t stop thinking about them. Anyone who watches [Brendan’s] interrogation, you just want to jump into the screen and get between that child and the interrogators. As a lawyer, I’m lucky enough to do that. [Nirider specializes in cases involving false confession from a youth].
Why are so many teens confessing to crimes that they potentially did not commit?
Police around the country are trained in how to interrogate people, but the methods they’re trained to use are designed for seasoned adult criminals, not for 16-year-olds and certainly not for 16-year-olds who may have mental limitations [like Brendan Dassey]. These tactics steamroll kids and you have this problem of teenagers in the interrogation room who just decide they need to say whatever the officer wants them to say, and they think they’re going to get to go home. You see it over and over in so many cases—exactly what happened to Brendan. Kids just don’t understand what they’re getting into when they give up these statements.
What is one of the biggest challenges in your job?
Part of being a lawyer is you have to work with and try and convince the people on the other side that you’re right. There are a lot of great prosecutors out there who are willing to take a second look at the cases, but there are a lot that aren’t, too. It’s frustrating when you’re dealing with somebody on the other side who will not open their mind. That’s a huge challenge of the job, not only dealing with those situations when they arise, but remembering that that’s going to happen and that’s part of the deal.
As viewers saw in Making a Murderer, trying to prove someone’s innocence can be frustrating. How do you stay motivated?
Talking to your clients. Anytime I feel frustrated, I think “this is nothing because at 5 p.m., I get to go home to my family and I get to do all those things that people are denied in prison.” There’s nothing better to keep you going than remembering there’s someone suffering who shouldn’t be.
What’s the best part of your day?
There are all kinds of wonderful moments, whether it’s being on the phone with the clients and hearing that you’re really making a difference in somebody’s life, or watching my students go from not knowing the system to arguing in court to winning in court. Sometimes it’s the little moments like when I stumble upon the piece of evidence that I think might free somebody, or when I think of a winning argument that might result in getting someone innocent out of prison. Those moments are fantastic.
What’s the worst part of your day?
The setbacks. These cases aren’t easy to win. We get involved in cases only after someone has been convicted. In other words, we get involved at the hardest part of the process. We’re trying to undo a conviction that’s already happened and sometimes that takes years and years. You try and go as fast as you can because you know at the bottom of this whole mess is, in Brendan’s case, a 16-year-old who’s not 16 any longer because he’s grown up behind bars. It can take a long time because courts, by their nature, are very slow. So I think just dealing with the pace and the inevitable setbacks can be really challenging.
Who do you admire most in your profession and why?
A lot of the people that I work with at Northwestern, like [attorney] Steve Drizin, who works at the Center and also appears in Making a Murderer. They are incredible because of their absolute brilliance, their total tenacity as attorneys, their compassion for their clients—deep, deep, deeply felt compassion for their clients—and their complete humility. These are not people who go around thinking they’re the greatest thing that ever happened to the world. These are people who are humble and are more successful because of it.
What’s the best career advice you’ve ever received?
To be strategic. Think about what you need to do to advance to the next level, who you need to get in front of, and what you need to do to achieve your goals. But I think it’s being [both] strategic and entrepreneurial. So if there isn’t an organization out there that’s doing what you want to do, see what you can do to bring that about.
If someone wanted to be a post-conviction lawyer, what qualities do they need?
I think it’s important for a lawyer working in this field to remember that people who are in prison are no different than you and me. They are people who have gotten into some trouble, but we’ve all gotten into trouble before. They need to be able to relate to people who are in different circumstances than themselves.
After a long day in court, in the classroom, or at the Center, what do you do to unwind?
Get my kids in bed early, so I can enjoy some hours to myself. I like to have a glass of wine (typically Chardonnay), chat with my husband, put my feet up and try and get some distance from the day for a little bit.
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