On Thursday, August 30, the Honorable Catherine M. Salinas, United States Magistrate Judge for the Northern District of Georgia, delivered the second annual Center for Access to Justice Public Interest Keynote address at Georgia State University College of Law. Salinas encouraged students to begin thinking about their professional identity as lawyers and to commit to serving the public interest, whether full time or by doing pro bono work as part of a different full-time career.
A graduate of Emory University and the University of Texas School of Law, Salinas has been a United States Magistrate Judge since 2015, a position she calls her “dream job.”
In describing her path to becoming a federal judge, Salinas acknowledged that hers was a somewhat unconventional trajectory. She started law school as a self-described “activist and general contrarian” who “might have dressed in a punk rock style with a mohawk.” From the outset, she planned to be a public interest lawyer.
She began her legal career in 1994 at Texas Rural Legal Aid on the Mexican border, where she represented migrant farmworkers and other low-income Texans. She was inspired by the dedication of the people she worked with, and felt like she had found her “true self” personally and professionally.
In 1999, she returned to Atlanta and applied to work at Atlanta Legal Aid Society, a job she ultimately did not get, allegedly because she wore overalls to the interview. Undeterred, she explored working as a public defender and a staff attorney in the Eleventh Circuit. She later served as a law clerk to Senior United States District Judge Willis B. Hunt, Jr. and eventually earned a place as a shareholder at the national law firm Carlton Fields, where she worked for ten years as a commercial litigator.
At every step, Salinas says she pursued positions that appealed to her rather than what she thought was expected of her, and she urged the audience to do the same. No matter what role she was playing professionally, she always dedicated herself to giving back.
“Sometimes you have to reshape how you view yourself, but there are always things you can do to be part of the community and keep that [commitment] alive,” Salinas said. She suggested that law students write down their goals and dedicate themselves to pro bono service because of its many benefits to the lawyer, to the client, and to the community as a whole.
Andrew Brown (J.D. ’19) took her words to heart. “Judge Salinas’s speech was incredibly refreshing to hear after being in law school for two years,” Brown said. “She touched upon every concern most law students have throughout their time in law school. Her story about the journey through law school—and life for that matter—reminded me that there is no one way to do things. It was nice to hear that from someone who has achieved so much in their professional career.”
Louisa Pinto (J.D. ’19) agreed. “As someone who is still determining where I want to work in the public interest field, I was encouraged by Judge Salinas’s untraditional path. Even though she did not leave law school with a 10-year plan, her breadth of experience—in public interest and private law—prepared her well for her future work as a judge.”
Salinas underscored that, whether law students seek to pursue a public interest career or have another path in mind, they “can still keep public interest in their lives.” Pro bono service is one way to do that. In addition to providing valuable experience, especially for new lawyers, pro bono work provides fodder for cocktail party conversations and is a great way to develop professional identity, Salinas said.
Judge Salinas is a past president of the Atlanta Legal Aid Society and currently serves on the Access to Justice Committee of the State Bar of Georgia.
Darcy Meals, assistant director of the Center for Access to Justice, said Salinas was an ideal Public Interest Keynote speaker. “She is a lifelong public servant and a living example of the fact that public interest work can take many forms in one’s legal career,” Meals said.