Trey Barnett has spent most of his life strengthening his empathy muscle. He grew up in Concord, Ga., a town populated by less than 1,000 people, but when he went to the University of Georgia, a federal work study job in the LGBT Resource Center opened his eyes to the fact that not everyone experiences life in the same way. His world expanded again when he enrolled at Georgia State Law and volunteered at the Atlanta Legal Aid Olmstead Disability Rights Clinic. It was there that he developed a passion for connecting people with life-changing resources—something he wants to carry throughout his career. This summer, he participated in a virtual clerkship in the Fulton County Public Defender’s Office, and is ready to pound the pavement to help the people who are often left behind.
What made you want to pursue a career in law?
The first big thing that made me to get off the fence was the Muslim ban, which really impacted people who had visas based on their family members. There were people stuck in the airport. The other thing is that my partner at the time was working on prisoner’s rights in Florida. Her organization was suing the state because the state knew that prisoners were getting Hepatitis C, but they wouldn’t provide medical treatment. A big reason why the state wasn’t providing treatment is because the drug was expensive, but it’s a deadly disease. There’s this thing where people in institutions accept inequities because they’re so used to it, and that outraged and motivated me. When I left Miami and moved back to Georgia, that was one reason I decided I was going to go to law school.
Since you’ve been here, I noticed you’ve been involved with a number of student programs. Talk to me about your co-curricular activities.
The main thing is that I am on the board of the GSU chapter of the National Lawyers Guild (NLG). It wouldn’t be where it is without my classmate Che Johnson Long. We have been a leader in supporting the right to dissent and NLG has been there since the uprisings started in the spring… We often describe the U.S. as the land of the free, but we have the world’s largest prison population. The guild does a lot of great work to address that issue, immigration and others. I love NLG and it’s been a valuable part of my time as a law student. In the fall, we’re trying to do a virtual reading series on race, capitalism and the law.
What are you doing in your virtual externship?
I had my first hearing yesterday where I represented a client in court. They had been in jail for four months, and I spent over a month doing research and getting to know the client and their family. Unfortunately, we didn’t get the outcome we wanted. It was tough. I still believe that my client deserved the outcome that I advocated for, but we didn’t get what we wanted. I really reminded me of the importance of everything I learned in the Professional Responsibility class. After that experience, I feel more confident and competent as a result of the experience. I feel like next time I have a client I will be less nervous, and the time after that I’ll be even less nervous.
What is your dream job?
Right now, I want to do civil legal aid or public defense work. I want to put my foot to the pavement and start representing clients and trying cases. In a lot of positions, it feels like you’re putting on Band-Aids, because the system is broken. That’s a fair criticism, but I get more joy out of doing the daily work of trying to represent people who are at risk of losing their housing, or at risk of going to prison. I don’t know if I’ll be doing that work forever, but that’s where my heart is now.
Interview by Kelundra Smith