Each day that Heather Warnken heads to her office at U.C. Berkeley’s School of Law, she may be exercising that fancy law degree of hers, but it doesn’t feel like paper-pushing or, worse, grunt work. That’s because her job as a legal policy associate at the Chief Justice Earl Warren Institute on Law & Social Policy hits a sweet spot, combining on-the-ground research with her specialties: crime victims’ rights and services, violence-against-women response, and juvenile justice reform. Take note, starry-eyed future lawyers: This is the kind of nontraditional law job that lets you think outside the box.
“While in law school, I never thought about research as an advocacy tool,” Warnken says of her gig, where she identifies ways to transform our rather rigid criminal justice system into a more dignified, compassionate, and effective space by surveying and talking to victims and victims’ service programs about what justice means to them. What do victims and communities actually need after a crime’s been committed, and how can we do better? She found out by asking participants of every single program in California’s criminal justice system — the results were so compelling that even the U.S. Department of Justice cited her findings in a blueprint for improving response to those affected by crime.
Of course, it’s not all work and no play for the John Hopkins and U.C. Berkeley-educated lawyer; Warnken admits to loving car-singing and karaoke to transport herself away from the heavy issues she wrestles with at work. Plus, one perk of working at such a renowned, multidisciplinary institution is an all-star network of colleagues and friends who show her new ways to leave the world better than when she found it. “My projects surround me with visionaries,” she says — and we can hardly think of a more fulfilling gig. Cue up Law & Order’s “chung chung” and take a peek at her hard-charging, policy-shaking ways.
“We are working to confront criminal and juvenile justice challenges threaded with profound racial disparities, gender discrimination, and intergenerational trauma. These complex problems require complex solutions well beyond that which the law alone can provide. An aspect of my job that I find so invigorating and freeing is that I have the opportunity to integrate the many perspectives necessary for pathways forward. Most importantly, that of the people impacted and marginalized by broken systems every day.”
“Far too many lawyers I know and love feel trapped in jobs that do not make them happy. I can understand because I have the suffocating debt, the pressures and fear, too, and traveled the same rigged path. But the brick walls are surmountable. There is always a way to be an innovator in your own life. I hope one day legal education and the profession as a whole is a more conducive environment to fostering the ability of individuals to think outside the box about how to make a living wage doing something that they love. Contrary to popular belief, there are actually no rules, only possibilities of ways to contribute in this world.”
“I could watch, contemplate, and discuss The Wire, a brilliant work of art and social commentary, endlessly. David Simon’s self-described love letter to my hometown has, in my humble opinion, done more to accurately depict and elicit discussion around issues of urban poverty and the War on Drugs than any academic work (or politician) ever could. I watched every season (twice) in weekend-long benders.”
The Road Less Traveled
“I'm so grateful to have unbelievable mentors that have opened doors for me I didn’t know existed, examples set by a wonderful family of nontraditional lawyers, and a whole lot of luck. But I also found this path by showing up. Over and over again. Events, talks, coffee — I was hungry for opportunities at my own intersection of learning and caring. Seeking out the people who were making careers of the things I cared most about in the world. Starting conversations and following up on them. Picking the brains of people I respect. And probably the hardest part: putting myself and my ideas out there.”
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