From the time she was a little girl growing up in Arizona, Emma Hobbs ’21 watched her father shuttle back and forth to prison.
“It was tough,” says Hobbs, whose father, who suffers from Substance Abuse Disorder, served more than 30 years over his lifetime for a series of non-violent felonies. “As a young child, it changes you to see your dad carried away by the police.” She hid the truth from her friends and teachers, but when she arrived at Arizona State University, her father relapsed and she spent her freshman year scrambling to get him into rehab. The first legal papers she ever signed, at 18, were to commit him to a state hospital when he threatened to kill himself.
“That was a big turning point for me and so I started telling people,” says Hobbs, who earned her B.A. with honors in two years and got her master’s degree in Justice and Social Inquiry the following year. “It began to inform my actions and the work I wanted to do. I wanted to prove to people that the legal system that we think dictates right and wrong and good and bad may not be as sound as we think.”
For example, her father’s experience with plea bargaining: in one instance, he had a year added to the deal for each day he delayed accepting it, so he got eight years instead of five. She recalls thinking, “that cannot be our legal system, that cannot be the way we think about justice or equity.” Around the same time, she realized she was powerless to change her father’s addiction but “what I can do is law, I can be in the room with those who need an advocate.”
At the age of 20, Hobbs headed to Harvard Law School, where she has focused on criminal defense and legal aid including with Harvard Defenders, the Criminal Justice Institute and the Housing Law Clinic. “The experience with my dad is the informing piece of my life,” says Hobbs. “None of the work would happen if it wasn’t for that history.”
In law school discussions about the criminal justice system, Hobbs felt it essential to share her story. “People think of crime as weird, malicious decision-making, when it’s often people in bad situations trying to get through,” she says. “It was important for me to say [criminal defendants] are really good people, many of them. My father is one of kindest people I’ve ever met [and] so smart, a real genius, but there weren’t steps in place [to help him]. So, his mom gave him to the state when he was 16 and he started selling drugs and went to prison and then got out and couldn’t get a job and stole a car, so he went back to prison, and it keeps going.”
Her personal narrative, she says, “reminds people that these aren’t abstract issues, it’s not an intellectual guessing game when you’re sentencing someone to prison. There are real, lived consequences for that person and their loved ones.” Her frankness, she adds, often prompted other students to share their experiences with addicted family members and other challenges.
Hobbs joined Harvard Defenders, which represents low-income people in criminal show-cause hearings, as soon as she got to campus. During January Term of her first year, she enrolled in Introduction to Trial Advocacy, a crash course in effective advocacy, and in her third year, she was a student in the Criminal Justice Institute, representing criminal defendants under the supervision of CJI faculty. In summer of 2020, she worked as an intern for the Colorado State Public Defender.
“When I talk to clients it’s not me as an esoteric, Ivy League law student. It’s me as the daughter of someone who’s been in prison,” says Hobbs. “So, there are lots of opportunities to build real empathy and understanding that I’ve been really grateful for.”
“Emma is a wonderful student and it’s been a pleasure to teach her,” says Ronald S. Sullivan Jr. ’94, the Jesse Climenko Clinical Professor of Law and director of CJI. “She certainly understands, in a deeply personal way, the impact that the criminal justice system has on families. It’s not theory. For her, she understands it in practice, and uses that as a motivation to think through the very many issues that the law can be deployed as a tool to correct.”
Hobbs, who plans to work as a legal aid lawyer to broaden her experience before becoming a public defender, has also been closely involved with HLS Lambda, the school’s LGBTQ+ student affinity group, which performs community work including assisting trans and nonbinary youth. “That’s the space where I feel most myself on campus,” says Hobbs. “There are so many wonderful people all bonded by this shared understanding of how wonderful our differences are.”
Hobbs, who describes herself as having psychosocial disabilities, took a course in Disability Law and Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School taught by Michael Ashley Stein ’88, founder and executive director of the Harvard Law School Project on Disability and a visiting professor at HLS. Stein served as a mentor to Hobbs both in her studies and as she navigated the law school environment.
“Emma is very creative and thoughtful, she knows her own mind and knows what areas of practice are important to her,” says Stein, who says he deeply admires Hobbs’s resilience. “She also has the ability, which we all strive for, to scale back and engage in self-care and perhaps not take on all the projects she’d like to.” The legal profession has “great challenges” with regard to psychosocial disabilities, Stein adds, noting that doctors and lawyers lead among professionals in terms of substance abuse, suicidal ideation, and mental illness. “As a profession we’re starting to see programs and endeavors, whether at law firms or corporations or law schools, supporting people who feel they are under pressure or having struggles. We need to make it more the norm and remove the stigma from it.”
“When I think about my dad, I think about what would it mean for law school to have a real shift toward empathy and how do we mutually understand each other,” Hobbs says, “because that’s what law is, it’s attempting to understand and codify human behavior.” When law students and lawyers feel supported in sharing their full humanity — their experiences, challenges, disabilities — the profession can only benefit. “So, it’s about finding opportunities to say, ‘I am a lawyer and I’m disabled, I am a lawyer and I am a child of a felon and an alcoholic, that these are all parts of me and parts of me that make me a good lawyer.”