Maggie Wells, ’24: Federal Criminal Justice Clinic Experience ‘Will Influence the Rest of My Career’

Maggie Wells

Maggie Wells, ’24, participated in the Federal Criminal Justice Clinic (FCJC), where she was part of the legal team that last March effectuated the early release of a clinic client who was serving a 25-year mandatory minimum sentence. She also got experience in the public policy advocacy arena, helping the clinic make its case for more expansive sentence-reduction guidelines ultimately adopted by the US Sentencing Commission. In the upcoming academic year, she plans to take advantage of another experiential learning opportunity offered by UChicago Law, the Criminal and Juvenile Justice Clinic (CJJC). Wells recently share her insights on her clinical experience and how it has contributed to her professional development.

Why did you select this clinic?

I selected the FCJC because I wanted to work with Professor Erica Zunkel, Professor Alison Siegler, and Professor Judith Miller, who I had heard were amazing mentors and teachers. I also had heard that FCJC gave students interesting projects and lots of responsibility—both of which I found to be true.

Can you describe a little bit about your compassionate release work at the clinic?

I’m so grateful for the work I’ve gotten to do on compassionate release with Professor Zunkel. In the federal system, compassionate release is a legal mechanism for asking a judge to release someone early after they’ve been sentenced. Last year, I worked closely on the case of a client who was serving a lengthy mandatory minimum sentence for his involvement in a reverse sting operation. I eventually saw him released last March after our motion for a sentence reduction was granted. In addition, two of our other clients were released early this summer.

Beyond the individual client work, I’ve helped with policy advocacy. Last year, the US Sentencing Commission expanded its guidelines for sentence reduction motions, which will open the door for more people to get out of prison early. I had the opportunity to help write our clinic’s testimony and public comment on the new guidelines and influence policy. I’m excited to continue working on compassionate release cases this year with Professor Zunkel in the CJJC.

What was it like to be directly involved in effectuating the release of a client while you are still a law student?

Working on our client’s compassionate release motion has been the most meaningful thing I’ve done in law school. Speaking with our client and his family showed me firsthand the power lawyers have to improve people’s lives and the criminal justice system. I will never forget driving to the federal prison in Indiana to see our client released after spending almost two decades in prison. I’m certain that this experience as a law student will influence the rest of my career and the way I think about client advocacy.

What made participating in this clinic meaningful to you?

The mentorship and guidance I’ve received from Professor Zunkel has been extremely meaningful to me. Professor Zunkel trusted the students on our team and let us take the lead on every aspect of the compassionate release motion we worked on last year. She gives invaluable career advice and work-product feedback, but also makes sure that each of the students on her team feel valued and know the work they are doing is important. I am so grateful to have gotten assigned to work with her.

How do you think your involvement in this clinic has helped prepared you for practice?

I’ve become a much better writer from all the feedback I received last year. I’ve also gotten to see the lifespan of a federal case from developing legal arguments and collecting evidence to strategizing our response to the government’s reply.

How, if at all, your clinic experience changed your view of law, the legal system and/or your role as an advocate?

My involvement in the clinic has demonstrated that lawyers have immense power to shape the criminal justice system in positive and negative ways. In particular, participating in advocacy to the Sentencing Commission demonstrated to me that it’s important to focus on policy making and not just the individual cases where lawyers can make an impact.

What opportunities did you have to collaborate with faculty and how did the interaction enhance your clinical experience?

I collaborated very closely with Professor Zunkel on the clinic’s compassionate release work. Our team had weekly meetings where we discussed our legal strategy and case updates. We also had numerous writing projects where Professor Zunkel reviewed our writing and gave detailed feedback. Outside of compassionate release, the clinic holds seminar during the quarter where students have the opportunity to learn from the other clinical professors!

What would you say to a fellow student considering enrolling in the clinic?

You won’t regret joining FCJC or CJJC. You will get a lot of important work and responsibility and will learn so much from Professor Zunkel, Professor Siegler, and Professor Miller!

What are planning to do with your degree when you graduate?

Right now, the plan is to work at a big firm in New York.

Why did you originally select UChicago Law as the place you wanted to get your legal education?

I chose UChicago Law for its small class sizes and unique intellectual environment. I wanted to get to know my classmates and professors over three years. Being part of a clinic and getting important work and personalized feedback is just one example of the small class size in action!

Other than clinic involvement, what has been your favorite UChicago Law experience so far?

Law School Musical!

How do you like to spend your free time?

Read for fun, watch reality TV with my friends, attend group fitness class, and hang out by the lake.