Second-year student Vito Bitetto reflects on his law school journey and offers advice to prospective students.
No one comes to law school with all of the answers. I started law school with none; I had never had any legal experience before beginning at Touro. I had worked as a cashier, a pizza maker, a server and a bartender. Then I began at Touro and I entered a world governed by the UCC and the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. I am convinced that 1L year is designed to test the limits of a person’s sanity. Most will pass through to the next year and unfortunately some will just not make it, but if it were easy everyone would do it.
The one thing that can almost guarantee your success in law school is passion. Not a passion for ‘Federal Question Jurisdiction,’ because that would be weird, but a passion for making a difference. A passion for advocating for people who can’t have their voice heard without you. As cliché as it sounds, if you have a passion for what you do, nothing will stop you. Unfortunately, our higher education system is riddled with pressure more than anything. Our society puts pressure on you, sometimes even before you graduate high school, to know exactly what you want to do for the rest of your life. We’re so conditioned to respond to the pressure that we lose our passion somewhere along the way. So the first piece of advice I give you: prospective student, current student, or graduate, is to find your passion and follow it, it’s never too late and it’s worth the change.
Most legal professionals will tell a 1L student, it’s okay not to know exactly what area of law you’re going to practice. In fact it’s expected that you won’t know right away. The vast oasis of knowledge available in law school makes it difficult for students to maintain a consistent desired career path, so explore. Take in as much as you can because this is most likely the last time any of us will ever have such easy access to such information. Some individuals have ideals and passions that are ingrained in them at an early age and others find it later. What I’ve known for sure is that I want to help people to realize their true worth and just how priceless every life is. The people who often get overlooked or exploited by society are those who have never realized the remarkable gift of life they have for whatever reasons. They could have come from broken families or had similar destructive patterns experienced by many. Some of the people I want to help may already have had a chance or two and wasted it, but I don’t believe people are inherently bad despite some bad choices they have made.
My passions led me to criminal defense. I want to help make our criminal justice system better, give a voice to people who don’t have one, and mitigate punishment with mercy for people who make bad choices. Criminal Law is so important to me because the outcome of a case or trial can alter the entire course of someone’s life. The one stumbling block for me was the idea of separating my own morality from my cases. In essence, I questioned how I could ever fight to “get someone off” that I know did something bad. My questions and insecurities were answered the summer after my first year at Touro.
I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to intern at Suffolk County Legal Aid with Liz Justesen for ten weeks. Liz, a Touro Law graduate herself, is truly an embodiment of the philosophies I believe are inherent in a true advocate. She has characteristics that inspire and affirm my goals of becoming an attorney myself. Starting simply with the fact that her energy and positivity were unparalleled throughout the summer. She came to work each and everyday exemplifying the term zealous advocate with each of her clients. Not a single client was treated less than professionally and each client was zealously defended, regardless if second’s prior to a conference, the client had just finished verbalizing the infamous notion that maybe he/she should hire a “real attorney.” Liz’s passion and fire for advocating for clients was evident from the first day I started working with her and continued through the many programs she has started (on her own time) in order to enrich the community.
The internship with Legal Aid taught me that working as a criminal defense attorney isn’t about “getting people off.” It’s about defending a person’s constitutional rights and ensuring that justice is being served to the fullest extent. It is the adversarial relationship between prosecutor and defense counsel that is supposed to exact the most justice possible for victim and defendant alike. However, reality shows us that that is simply not always the case. People simply don’t know their rights and sometimes the system will exploit that fact and people will receive harsh punishments that simply don’t fit the crime. Or worse, some people are accused of crimes that they did not commit and have no one to fight for them. Whatever the situation, I learned that criminal defense work is much more than “getting people off;” it’s about advocating for people’s rights. An advocate that will not only stand in your place and speak on your behalf but do so as if they were fighting for their own rights rather than someone else’s. To embody the sense of urgency and desperation your client may feel.
At Touro I have met so many exceptional people, both faculty and students alike, with so many different passions and gifts. There have been faculty that have opened doors for me that I didn’t even know were there. They have done so with my mind in the classroom and by introducing me to professionals outside of the classroom. I will be forever grateful for my time as a student at Touro.
Halfway through my second year, I have experienced great success and endured sobering failure. Our lives are made up of minutes; minutes that contain experiences; experiences that create memories; and memories that cause change; as a result, every minute matters. The present condition of our lives is the result of the sum total of every minute within each event that we experienced. Therefore, whether good or bad, everything we have experienced has had some part in making us who we are today. To live with regret is to live with and be sorry for who we are right now. I say regret nothing and use all experiences, especially the negative, to grow and become a better person. A great test of one’s character is seeing not only the response to success but observing the response to failure and growing from each. Failure is not a definition of a person, it is merely an event in one’s life; a moment in time when a decision was made that brought negative consequences. By changing our perceptions of things, we are then free to grow and enable others to do the same.