Personality: Julie E. McConnell

Spotlight on the MRWBA’s 2018 Women of Achievement Award winner

1/11/2019, 6 a.m.
Julie Ellen McConnell has always fought for the rights of the underprivileged and underserved — first as a public defender ...
Julie E. McConnell

Julie Ellen McConnell has always fought for the rights of the underprivileged and underserved — first as a public defender and now in defense of children in the court system.

She was honored recently for her efforts as a legal advocate.

“I was very humbled to be recognized by my colleagues and the women of the Metropolitan Richmond Women’s Bar Association,” says Ms. McConnell, the 2018 Women of Achievement Award recipient.

“Many incredible women leaders have been recognized by the organization over the years and I am honored to be a part of that group.”

She found out about the award just before Thanksgiving and received the award on Dec. 5.

As a proud member of the organization of female lawyers, Ms. McConnell was involved with the MRWBA board for about six years, bringing public interest and training to the bar while encouraging members to give as much time as they could to serve in the public interest.

“This organization is very interested in service, with some incredible female lawyers giving so much of their time throughout their careers mentoring young lawyers and helping the community,” she says.

MRWBA helps with all kind of projects to provide pro bono legal services to people in the community.

Ms. McConnell is director of the Children’s Defense Clinic at the University of Richmond School of Law and helped publish the Virginia Domestic Relations Pamphlet, a free guide that she says is essential for anyone trying to navigate the juvenile and domestic relations court in a civil matter without an attorney. “It explains domestic relations law and procedure in a straightforward manner,” she says.

The late Robert E. Shepherd Jr., a nationally known juvenile law expert and UR law professor, founded the clinic in the 1970s. However, the clinic was dormant for a few years after he became ill and died in 2010.

Ms. McConnell re-established the clinic and has served as its director since 2011. Its mission is to teach law students best practices in advocacy for indigent children facing matters in the criminal justice system and to help improve the overall quality of juvenile defense in Virginia.

“I have been working in children’s issues and being an advocate my entire career,” Ms. McConnell says.

“In my early 20s, I worked in a group home in Laramie, Wyo., as a special education teacher.” Many of the children, she recalls, had gotten in trouble.

“Looking at children holistically and establishing mentoring relationships really made a difference in their lives, which was a great group home model,” she says.

That began her journey and passion for equity in judicial treatment for children and becoming a leader in helping people seeking asylum from Central America.

Her first real job in Richmond was running the Virginia Association to Abolish the Death Penalty. As a community organizer and advocate on behalf of the people on death row, Ms. McConnell lobbied the General Assembly to eliminate the death penalty.

“The penalty is still around. However, there are less than 10 people on death row in the state,” says Ms. McConnell who served as a public defender in Richmond from 2000 to 2006, and as a juvenile and domestic relations court prosecutor from 2006 to 2011.

“Because some people are sometime wrongfully convicted, juries are not as willing to give the death penalty anymore,” she says.

Ms. McConnell’s objective remains to make a difference earlier in children’s lives in order to get them on the right path.

“It is important that courts consider early trauma experiences when determining how best to respond to disruptive behavior or delinquent acts bringing young people into court,” Ms. McConnell says. “Hopefully, juvenile courts will provide the kind of trauma-informed methods and resources needed to fix some of the problems.”

In concert with trauma-informed policies, the Children’s Defense Clinic assists Central American children seeking asylum and Special Immigrant Juvenile Status because of horrific gang violence and persecution.

“It’s important to be informed about why these families are willing to send their children to the U.S. for a better life,” Ms. McConnell says.

“What a horrific situation. Central American asylum seekers would not make these long and dangerous treks here if they were not completely desperate and out of options.”

Meet this week’s Personality, a legal expert who helps those who cannot help themselves, Julie E. McConnell:

Date and place of birth: Dec. 2 in Cincinnati.

Current residence: Richmond.

Family: Husband, Jerry Zerkin, and daughter, Elena Zerkin, 16.

Alma maters: Bachelor’s degree, Agnes Scott College, and J.D., University of Richmond School of Law.

Latest honor: Recipient of the Metropolitan Richmond Women’s Bar Association 2018 Women of Achievement Award.

Meaning of award to me: I’m humbled to be included in the special group of women that have been honored by the MRWBA. There are some incredible leaders in the community that have been recognized by the bar as Women of Achievement over the years — many of them UR graduates — and it still takes my breath away to be included in that group. 

Current job: I am the director of the University of Richmond School of Law Children’s Defense Clinic and the only attorney.

Annual budget: The law school is committed to providing pro bono representation in appropriate cases to members of the community as part of the educational experience for law students.

Purpose of clinic: The mission of the Children’s Defense Clinic is to teach law students best practices in advocacy for indigent children facing matters in the criminal justice system. We believe strongly in providing holistic and zealous representation on a pro bono basis that addresses the needs of the whole child.

Three examples of legal cases in past year: We have assisted in post-conviction sentencing challenges in several cases where we secured early release based on good behavior for our clients who were facing long prison terms. We also have assisted numerous Central American children who fled their homelands because of horrific gang violence and persecution. These children are seeking a form of asylum in this country known as Special Immigrant Juvenile Status. And finally, we have helped countless children facing delinquency charges with getting their charges dismissed and their lives back on track.

Who is eligible to be a client: We primarily represent indigent children facing delinquency charges in Central Virginia and serious juvenile offenders seeking post-conviction representation for their sentencing reviews.

Areas of expertise: I specialize in juvenile delinquency and criminal law. I served as a public defender for almost six years and then as a juvenile and domestic relations court prosecutor for six years before coming to the University of Richmond.

Importance of clinic: The clinic is important to law students because many of them come to law school with the goals of working in the public interest and learning practical skills that will prepare them for practice. In the last few years, in particular, I sense there is an ethos among the student body of wanting to learn how to use their legal skills to help people.

Total number and breakdown of types of cases handled in past year: The Children’s Defense Clinic handles approximately 40 cases a year. We represent children at the trial level in delinquency and status offenses in Central Virginia juvenile and domestic relations courts. We also handle serious offender sentencing reviews around the state in which we advocate for sentence reductions for individuals serving long sentences for offenses they committed while under 18. We represent families in Special Immigrant Juvenile Status matters. And we represent individuals in post-conviction challenges to unconstitutionally harsh sentences.

Role of courts in hearing cases of juvenile delinquency: The Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court is the court in which cases are heard involving children under 18 who have been charged with an act of delinquency. When a child is accused of a crime in Virginia, it is referred to as an act of delinquency, rather than a criminal act.

The court adjudicates the delinquency matter and if the child is found guilty, the court also imposes a disposition. The court then typically monitors the case to make sure that the child continues to stay out of trouble.

In some cases, children can be tried as adults and their cases can be sent to Circuit Court for adjudication and sentencing. Once we send these cases to adult court, there is a sense that the child is beyond help. I work with many of these kids and they are anything but beyond help. I have seen tremendous growth and change as these young people grow and mature and their brains fully develop. With appropriate supports, they often age out of their negative behavior and become productive citizens. But we don’t make that any easier when we stigmatize them with felony convictions.

Types of cases involving juvenile delinquents: We handle everything from status cases, such as truancy and curfew violations, to murder. We primarily focus on less serious misdemeanor and felony delinquency matters.

Compare to 20 years ago: I have seen a steady decline in juvenile delinquency matters over the 20 years that I have been practicing. But at the same time, I have seen more and more kids pushed out of school through suspensions and expulsions for very minor offenses, such as disorderly conduct. And most often the kids who are getting pushed out are kids with disabilities and kids of color. And when we push kids out of school and give them nothing to do and very little education, they often drop out permanently and get in more trouble. This approach is completely unacceptable and wrong-headed, and I am finally starting to see schools looking for alternative disciplinary approaches that don’t favor suspension and expulsion for minor infractions. The next thing we need to do is implement restorative justice and mediation to resolve these issues in the school rather than just kicking kids out of school and into the courts and ignoring the root of the problem.

What I would recommend to judges: Do everything you can to keep kids out of the deep end of the juvenile justice system where the outcomes are abysmal. Find ways to help children without criminalizing their behavior and removing them from their homes. Send their cases to diversionary programs whenever possible.

Reasons for juvenile delinquency: Kids often get involved in delinquent behavior because they lack appropriate supervision, are living in crime-filled environments, don’t have fully developed brains, have been abused or neglected and have not gotten appropriate help, have witnessed violence, live in chaos and poverty, suffer from mental and emotional challenges, and because they are immature and impulsive. Much of the delinquent behavior that gets addressed in juvenile court is normal adolescent behavior that has gotten out of hand.

When I knew law was for me: I first started thinking about law school when I was in high school. I paid my way through college and law school and put off going to law school until I had paid off my college loans.

Advice to young people considering a law career: If you want to have a career through which you can truly help people, a legal education is a powerful tool to meet that goal. Access to justice is extremely important and for many people can be elusive. Lawyers have the knowledge necessary to help change that. If you want to go to law school, buckle down and get good grades in high school and college. And learn how to write and communicate effectively. A liberal arts degree is a great foundation for law school.

How I start the day: I am an eternal optimist.

A perfect day for me is: Time spent with my family and pets.

Something I love to do that most people would never imagine: I love to go to all kinds of music festivals with my husband and daughter, and I love to travel all over the world. I am a huge fan of roots music, rock, blues, bluegrass, classical, jazz, gospel, zydeco and folk music. 

A quote that I am inspired by: “No one has ever become poor by giving.” — Anne Frank.

The best thing my parents ever taught me: To use my knowledge and skills to help others. My parents were both teachers in their first careers and have been great role models for me.

The person who influenced me the most: My grandmother helped raise us and was the kindest and most loving person I have ever known.

Book that influenced me the most: “Just Mercy” by Bryan Stevenson.

What I’m reading now: “Becoming” by Michelle Obama.

Next goal: Raise my daughter to be a kind, empathic and generous person who wants to make the world a better place.