Meet the graduates: Tara Dunn

Tara Dunn, L’17, is graduating from Northeastern’s School of Law on Friday. Photo by Adam Glanzman/Northeastern University
It was Tara Dunn’s first time jumping out of a plane, and she was terrified. She stepped up to the doorway as the plane rocked in heavy wind and turbulence. She focused on the routine she’d been taught throughout her parachutist qualification training course though, and made the leap. “There’s nothing like seeing Wal-Mart below as you plummet toward the Earth,” she said, laughing.

This—the first of five training jumps—was more than a decade ago when Dunn was studying at the United States Air Force Academy. After graduating from the academy, she worked at the Air Force for three years, but realized she needed something more. She needed to pursue her longtime goal of attending law school, even if that meant leaving behind a steady career in which she was performing well.

“My first jump wasn’t the prettiest,” she said. “Luckily the cameras broke, so they didn’t catch me flipping all around in the air. But I would relate law school to that experience. It was a bumpy road in the beginning, but you gain your footing.”

On Friday, Dunn, L’17, will deliver one of the student addresses at the School of Law commencement, where she will receive her juris doctor degree. Here, she reflects on her Northeastern experience and shares what’s ahead in her law career.

You’re graduating on Friday. What’s next for you after commencement?

In the fall, I’ll be joining the Massachusetts attorney general’s office through its two-year fellowship program. I’ll get to move around to different departments and divisions and get a diverse range of experience in areas such as civil and criminal litigation as well as legal services, where I might be writing appeals and briefs. It will definitely be an enriching experience.

At Northeastern, your work on the Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Project provided the first full account of a notorious 1947 jailhouse killing in Georgia. What inspired you to work with CRRJ?

I’d say CRRJ was the highlight of my law school experience. I first wanted to join the clinic because of professor Margaret Burnham, who does amazing work. But what also really touched me was listening to another CRRJ student discuss the research he’d done and how he and others corrected the record for their client and his family.

Our case involved the death of Henry Gilbert while he was in jail. The police chief told FBI investigators that he killed Gilbert in self-defense. But when we started to investigate Gilbert’s injuries, we found he had a crushed skull, five bullet wounds, and a broken leg. This man was completely decimated. Ultimately, we found it wasn’t self-defense. I had no idea I’d get such a robust case, meet the client’s family, and travel to Georgia multiple times. The family received an apology from the county, and I got to be there for that.

Tara Dunn will begin a two-year fellowship at the Massachusetts attorney general’s office this fall. Photo by Adam Glanzman/Northeastern University

Did that experience influence what law career track you’re looking to pursue?

I’ve been interested in civil rights and social justice, which is one of the main things that drew me to Northeastern. But this experience cemented my passion for civil rights. There’s a huge connection between the atrocities that happened from the 1940s through the 1960s and what is being recycled and named something different today. Authorities are still mistreating people.

For one of your four co-ops, you worked as a law clerk at the Public Defender Service in Washington, D.C. You wrote about the experience for Rightscapes, the blog for the law school’s Program on Human Rights in the Global Economy. What did you gain most from that co-op experience?

This co-op was the first time I woke up completely ecstatic to go to work. I loved working with my clients. As a law student, I had a smaller caseload, so I would go to the jails and work one-on-one with my clients. It cemented my interest in criminal justice law. I want to be in a courtroom, thinking on my feet and fighting for my client.

The majority of my clients were locked up before they were 17 years old and grew up in the prison system. Many of them were in their 30s and 40s, and some were in their 50s. When they are released on parole, they are expected to reintegrate into society. That experience just really spoke to the huge gap in our entire criminal justice system, and helped me understand what it takes to reintegrate someone. I’d never thought in-depth about this. I had clients who wanted to work and start over, but didn’t know how. Parole is so easy to get revoked. My job involved being there for my clients when they faced the parole board examiner. I would argue for a second chance for my client to go to a drug rehab program or some other rehabilitation or reintegration program instead of just being thrown back in jail, which doesn’t prepare them for anything—it just prolongs the inevitable. I will remember every single client for the rest of my life.

Leading up to commencement, what stands out as you’ve been reflecting on your Northeastern experience? What have you learned?

I would say there is definitely no substitute for preparation, whether you’re going to trial or a hearing for your client. But it’s a different type of preparation from making sure you cross your T’s and dot your I’s. It’s a certain attention that you give each client and that you get to know your client. That type of passion that many of our professors and students have is something I’ll take with me.