Exoneration vocation: Law student eyes a career in criminal defense work


Law student Monica Roberts wants to become a multi-state licensed criminal defense attorney with her own law firm; and also start or work for a pro bono legal clinic representing the wrongfully convicted.

Photo courtesy of Monica Roberts

By Sheila Pursglove
Legal News

As a freshman at the University of Georgia, Monica Roberts set her sights on becoming a doctor—but after taking General Chemistry, nixed the idea of taking further science courses.

After trying out several different majors, she plumped for Communication Studies since communication is essential in every occupation, and the major would not restrict her to a specific career path. She chose the minor of Japanese Language and Literature as her mother was born and raised in Japan, and Roberts wanted to practice and expand her Japanese speaking and writing skills.

“In a way, it helped me to stay connected with my culture,” she says. 

She then turned her attention to entering law school, and is in her 1L year at Detroit Mercy Law. Roberts says she was attracted to law because, for the majority of her life, she has witnessed people of color being harassed, incarcerated, “and stuck in the never-ending cycle of oppression that specifically targets minorities.

“Within the past few years, America has had an ongoing wave of racial unrest. Hearing and learning about the horrifying homicides of George Floyd, Philando Castile, Breonna Taylor, and countless other African-Americans whose lives were taken by authority figures in the community, ignited a passion in me to advocate for those who do not have a voice,” she says. “I decided I’d like to contribute to my community by practicing law and achieving my goal of becoming a criminal defense attorney, representing clients who may have not been able to afford adequate counsel, or were treated unfairly, and eventually working towards the exoneration of the innocent.”

Roberts is enjoying her experience at Detroit Mercy Law, especially relishing the close-knit community.

“Coming from a larger undergraduate institution, my class sizes now are smaller and it allows students to really get to know one another, form a relationship with the professor, and get connected with alumni,” she says.

Her career goal is to become a multi-state licensed criminal defense attorney with her own law firm, and she would also like to be able to start/work for a pro-bono legal clinic that represents the wrongfully convicted to work towards exoneration. With a particular focus on criminal law, social justice is her overarching passion.

“In order to achieve my goal of eventually working towards the exoneration of the innocent, I must be very knowledgeable about the criminal system and the different ways in which it systematically oppresses minority, impoverished populations,” she says.

Roberts is “overjoyed” with the opportunity to be a Dean’s Fellow. “It’s truly a blessing,” she says. “Not only has it provided me with a full-ride scholarship, I was also connected with one of my mentors, Kristina Joseph, who has been an amazing resource and is my official Dean’s Fellow mentor. I’m so grateful to be her mentee.” 

Detroit Mercy Law is offering fully in-person instruction, hybrid, and fully remote instruction.

“I chose the fully in-person option, so I’m able to come to campus and attend all of my classes in-person,” Roberts says. “They are taking precautionary measures, and everyone is required to wear masks while we are in the building, but besides that, I believe it’s fairly similar to law school before COVID-19.”

A native of Douglasville, Ga., about 25 minutes from Atlanta, Roberts now makes her home in Birmingham, where in her leisure time, she enjoys cooking and finding new recipes online and on Instagram to try out at home.  Her parents Maki and Marvin live in Douglasville, and her younger brother is a freshman at Georgia State University.

Roberts—who prior to moving here roughly a year ago had never been to Detroit, let alone Michigan—is enjoying getting to know the Motor City.

“Detroit is a great city with a lot of opportunity and deep-rooted Black history,” she says. 

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