“Litigation Boot Camp:” The Life of a Cochran Fellow

Vishal Agraharkar recounts what led him to become a Cochran Fellow and reflects on his experiences at the firm.

What got you interested in constitutional law?
After law school I got a fellowship and then a staff position at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law, working on voting rights and also felony disenfranchisement. I kind of knew at that point I wanted both civil rights and criminal justice to be part of my career. I also wanted to gain litigation experience from the best lawyers out there, so it made sense to apply for the Cochran fellowship.

What kind of litigation experience did you acquire?
What’s exciting is that from the beginning you become the point person, responsible for the day-to-day movement of your case, which really gives you the best understanding of all the facts. As an integral part of the trial team, you get to see cases through from beginning to end and be involved in all the decision-making. Plus you get to work with experts who can explain things like why people give false confessions or make faulty witness identifications.

Did you argue any cases?
I’m really happy that I was able to argue a Motion to Dismiss in a wrongful conviction case in San Francisco. We brought new claims based on documents we discovered that were never turned over to defense counsel during criminal proceedings – something that happens way too often. The government tried to get the claims dismissed, but the court agreed we could keep the claim in. That case is ongoing.

Were you part of any big wins?
The first six months I was here we got a wrongful conviction settlement for one our clients, Freddie Peacock. I worked on the brief where we laid out for the court all the ways Freddie was damaged by the misconduct of the police. We also put together a video narrative of what Freddie lost, where he and his family talk about the hope he has for a meaningful rest of his life. The court awarded him $6.2 million dollars for the six years he spent behind bars.

What can you tell prospective fellows about NSB office culture?
Putting the clients first is definitely part of our culture. They’re the reason we do what we do.

NSB is a fairly small firm, with about 10 attorneys and 3 paralegals, plus a social worker. You get all kinds of opportunities here you’re certainly not to get as a young associate at a large firm. There’s a nice balance where you’re getting real responsibility without feeling like you’re not getting adequate supervision. And of course you’re around a lot of really brilliant people who have shared goals and shared interests.

We tend to staff every case with 4 or 5 people, so there’s a good amount of interaction. On all of the cases, we have multiple partners to go to for help on key issues. And usually either [firm founders] Peter Neufeld or Barry Scheck will be on a case; there’s just a wealth of expertise and experience to draw on. I also worked closely with the paralegals to build the case from the ground up. They’re all really brilliant young minds who are going to go on to do great things.

What’s one of the most rewarding parts of the job?
Working with our clients is definitely one of the most rewarding parts of the job. It’s really impressive to me to see people who were in prison for decades or more, who faced unimaginable experiences and have been through things I can’t even imagine, come out on the other side with hope for the future. We’re always evaluating how we can best meet our clients’ needs, not just in the legal sense, but how we can help make their lives better in the long term, in a sustainable way.

Of course the ultimate goal is to help prevent the abuses our clients suffered from happening to others.

Any advice for future fellows?
One of the best ways to learn what it’s like to work here is to apply to be an intern. It’s a great way to get to know the firm and to learn about criminal justice from the civil side of things. Being a Cochran Fellow is a lot of work but really rewarding. For a young attorney, it’s like litigation boot camp.

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