CHICAGO — It was in third or fourth grade when LaSheda Brooks remembers first declaring her intention to become a lawyer.
"I used to talk a lot and liked to argue with my siblings and my cousins. I was ready to debate; even if my parents would be giving me a punishment, I was ready to argue and give them a better proposition of what punishment I should receive," said Brooks.
So, when asked what she would like to be when she grew up, her response was: "a lawyer."
This month, Brooks receives a Juris Doctor degree from DePaul University's College of Law and will spend the summer studying for the bar exam and taking swimming lessons before she begins officer development classes and Naval Justice School with the U.S. Navy JAG Corps.
The path to becoming a military lawyer
Originally from Chicago's West Side, Brooks and her family moved to Plainfield, Illinois, when she was in middle school. While in high school, Brooks had a daughter, Mya, who is now 10 years old. "Mya has been my motivation," she said.
"I finished high school about a semester early and when I was getting ready to graduate my mother suggested I consider joining the military. I told her I would think about it," recalled Brooks. She ultimately spoke with an Air Force recruiter and joined as a reservist. "I fell in love with the camaraderie and the commitment. I love the discipline, the work ethic, the environment," said Brooks.
"When I was an undergraduate at Northern Illinois University, I became active on campus: I was a senator, and I joined a lot of different organizations. My sorority played a big role in my getting involved in politics and all that helped me understand my purpose — and that was to basically make a difference in something bigger than myself," she explained, adding that it was with the help of her grandmother that she could be so active in school.
Brooks has a Bachelor of Arts degree in psychology, from NIU, where she studied Swahili and earned a minor in political science and a certificate in criminology. It was her undergraduate experience coupled with her military service that helped Brooks decide to dive into criminal defense work.
"Defense work is thrilling and intriguing. I want to be a voice for people who don't have a voice," she said. "I feel that so many times defendants get lost in the system, which dehumanizes them. That's when psychology can come into play. I care about telling their story."
Internships and externships reveal 'unwavering ethics'
While in her second year of law school at DePaul, Brooks interned at the Federal Defenders Program, where, among other things, she researched case law, drafted legal memoranda and pretrial motions, and interviewed pretrial detainees to explain their rights at the initial stages of a federal case. It was there that she met MiAngel Cody, who went on to co-found The Decarceration Collective, an anti-carceral law firm and consultancy in Chicago.
The next year, as a student in DePaul's Third Year in Practice program (3YP) with a 711 license that allowed her to practice law as a student, Brooks secured a full-time externship with The Decarceration Collective.
"I had two clients, from the moment they were arrested, so I was able to go through all the steps, working alongside MiAngel Cody," Brooks said.
"LaSheda is the pinnacle of what we expect from practice-ready new lawyers. I've taken her to federal prison and watched her explain — with profound humanity — complex legal issues to a man sentenced to die in prison. I've watched her comfort family members as their loved ones were arrested and taken into custody. LaSheda is an advocate with a straightened spine and unwavering ethics. She will serve our United States Navy JAG Corps with distinction and honor," said Cody.
"The 3YP program is all about learning by doing, including participation in an intensive externship such as the one that LaSheda did with The Decarceration Collective. It's a program that transforms you from a law student to a practicing lawyer before you graduate. And, LaSheda nailed it," said David Rodriguez, visiting assistant professor and director of the program.
"The 3YP program is the best thing that has happened to my career. It was amazing working with MiAngel Cody full-time at The Decarceration Collective, whether it was writing motions, going to court, looking at different things like compassionate release, which I didn't know that existed," said Brooks.
"MiAngel and David would send me different books and different articles. I learned to write well and how to consider things differently — it shaped me. It prepared me for my new career," Brooks said.
Graduation on the cusp of adventure 'anywhere in the world'
"I'm a first generation everything," Brooks noted. "A first-generation college student, a first-generation law student and a first-generation military member. All these experiences helped me realize I could go to the military and be a lawyer at the same time."
While attending DePaul, Brooks continued to live in Plainfield with her daughter and extended family, and she commuted to DePaul almost daily.
"Many times I would stay late and study. I have a great family who watched my daughter while I was at school. My main babysitter was my grandmother, even when we lived at NIU. I was able to join a sorority and be in those organizations because my grandmother would come to DeKalb and stay with us," Brooks said, sadly adding that her grandmother passed away this year.
"I'm happy for graduation because I know my grandmother is watching me, and I'm saying 'because of you, we made it this far.' Overall I've been in college for seven years and in a way, so has my daughter. Having her in high school, I've been living two lives, but she has too. I have no idea where I'll be stationed, but my daughter will go with me and she is ready to go. She's talking about Italy," Brooks said. "But it could be anywhere in the world."
Brooks will graduate with nearly 280 other students from DePaul's College of Law. The commencement ceremony is scheduled for 3 p.m. on May 13. Edward Grossman, co-founder of the Chicago Legal Clinic, is the commencement speaker. More details at http://bit.ly/DePaulGrad2018.