By Andrew Cohen
At a luncheon ceremony April 18 in the Bancroft Hotel, Rudy Alejo ’11 received the Brian M. Sax Prize for Excellence in Clinical Advocacy—along with booming standing ovations both before and after his acceptance speech.
Alejo worked for three semesters at the East Bay Community Law Center’s (EBCLC) Clean Slate Practice, which provides free legal services to low-income clients with criminal records who are trying to reenter society. A faculty committee selected Alejo from a group of nominees who worked at the law school’s various clinics.
“When I arrived at EBCLC, I quickly rediscovered the reasons I came to law school,” he said. Alejo told his clinic colleagues they were “like a family to me for the past year and a half” and “inspired me to no small degree … I’ve constantly fed off your passion for justice and your commitment to clients.”
Established in memory of Sax ’69, the annual prize is given to a graduating Berkeley Law student who best displays excellence in advocacy and professional judgment on behalf of clients while participating in a legal clinic.
Years after dropping out of high school, Alejo re-committed himself to his education. He worked as an electrician to put himself through Fresno City College and Cal-State Fresno, graduating summa cum laude.
His supervisor, EBCLC staff attorney Eliza Hersh ’05, said Alejo is “an extraordinary legal advocate, and will be such a good lawyer, because he’s continually drawing on his own profound life experiences to inform his work.” She added that his nontraditional path to law school “included many of the same missteps and challenges that our clients face.”
After graduating and taking the bar exam, Alejo will work on criminal appeals under the mentorship of Larry Gibbs, his former Berkeley Law professor. Wherever his career path leads, Alejo said, he will never forget his first day in the Clean Slate Practice, when a client was in danger of having a 30-year-old conviction prevent him from being an in-home support provider for his ailing wife.
The client had completely stayed out of trouble over those three decades, and founded and operated a small business until he retired. Eventually, his wife’s illness became too great for her to bear alone. “The passion I saw my first day inspired me,” Alejo said, “and the injustice I learned of made me really, really angry.”
Over the course of his three semesters at EBCLC, Alejo worked at the clinic well beyond the standard 16 hours per week and all through every student break.
“I heard stories of great personal tragedy often followed by great personal triumph,” he said. “I heard stories of poverty and desperation, violence and abuse. And I was confronted with situations that law school simply can’t prepare you for, like what to say when a client tells you she turned to drugs to cope with the murder of her child, or when another client tells you she sold herself to buy diapers for her newborn.”
Before the presentation of Alejo’s award, Death Penalty Clinic Director Elisabeth Semel, EBCLC Executive Director Tirien Steinbach ’99, International Human Rights Law Clinic Clinical Instructor Allison Davenport ’04, and Samuelson Clinic for Law, Technology & Public Policy Co-Director Jason Schultz ’00 described their students’ wide-ranging and far-reaching achievements over the past school year.
Dean Christopher Edley, Jr. praised the clinical program’s students, faculty, and staff for “the enormous volume of good that they’ve done in the world.” Also before Alejo’s speech, Ellen Rheaume ’11 received the Sax Prize honorable mention award for her stellar work on four capital cases in the Death Penalty Clinic.
Photos by Jim Block