Advocacy in Action
Gabriela Leija ’10 was 16 the first time she entered a courtroom. There to support a friend who had been charged with petty theft, she recalls bristling at the judge’s harsh words. “All I kept thinking was, ‘He doesn’t stop being my neighbor and friend just because he made a poor choice. Maybe if you knew all the things I know about him, you wouldn’t be saying these things.’”
That moment sparked Leija’s interest in the law and criminal defense. As a psychology major and pre-law student at Alverno, she juggled classes alongside full-time work as a legal secretary. After graduation, she joined the Wisconsin State Public Defender’s Office as a client services specialist, advocating for low-income families and connecting them to much-needed resources.
“I loved it, but I thought I could do more for clients, so I decided to go to law school,” explains Leija, who graduated from Marquette University Law School in 2014 and returned to the state public defender’s office as an attorney.
Today, Leija is an associate federal defender with Federal Defender Services of Wisconsin, a nonprofit that provides legal representation for those who can’t afford it. She represents individuals who have been charged with federal crimes ranging from postal theft to drug conspiracies.
“This area of the law can be incredibly depressing and frustrating, but my drive comes from the client standing next to me who needs help,” she says. “It’s the fire that keeps me going.”
She recalls one client who was charged with stealing $200 in gift cards from the mail around Christmas time. But the woman, who had also struggled with homelessness and lost her children, had severe mental health problems. Leija’s defense team connected her to a mobile crisis center and doctors, and now the woman is on psychiatric medication, employed and
working on getting her kids back. “It’s such an incredible turnaround,” Leija says.
Leija is passionate that everyone deserves an advocate. “I stand on that side of the aisle because I come from a place where I knew and cared about people like that,” she says. “Yes, there are some really poor choices that have been made, but in determining what’s going to happen to that person, you have to look at the context of that poor decision. Because that’s a human being who is someone’s son, someone’s friend, someone’s sister. We can’t throw people away. We have to try to figure out what’s at the source of the decision-making, and if there’s a way we can try to make a difference so that they don’t make that decision again.”
Leija, who sits on the board of the American Civil Liberties Union of Wisconsin, draws on her Alverno education every day.
“I talk and listen for a living,” she explains. “I need to be an effective listener and an effective interviewer to gain clients’ trust. I’m an empathetic listener — I listen to the environment a client grew up in and try to translate that for people who’ve never experienced that environment. I negotiate with prosecutors, I persuade judges. Those are the core abilities of Alverno, and they have allowed me to succeed in a field that’s like social interaction on steroids. Alverno taught me how to be an effective lawyer… and I think that has allowed me to do a lot of good.”
Advocates in Action
Alverno alums like Leija dedicate their careers to social justice causes. Click the names below to read their stories of advocacy, and if you know of an Alverno alum who is working on behalf of others, let us know at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article appears in the spring/summer 2019 issue of Alverno Magazine.