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Today, Jennifer Kovacs is making her mark as a public defender, a path she's been preparing—and fighting—for since high school and throughout her time at New England Law | Boston.

“While there’s a lower class, I’m in it; while there’s a criminal element, I’m of it; and while there’s a soul in prison, I’m not free.” So said labor organizer Eugene Debs, and so reads the tattoo on Class of 2019 grad Jennifer Kovacs’s shoulder. Like Debs, Kovacs has been a long-time fighter for the disenfranchised.

A first-generation student and the child of immigrants, Kovacs grew up in Chicago in a working-class family. Going to college was non-negotiable, but that wasn’t a problem for her.

Even as a teenager, Kovacs knew she wanted to work in public interest law. In high school, Kovacs was exposed to a series of traumatic events, including the death of a public defender in her community. The tragedy was catalyzing for her—she knew she had to take up the mantle as a public defender herself and work on social justice initiatives.

Kovacs dove into the law as an undergrad at Mount Holyoke College. She wasted no time pursuing her goals after graduating, moving to Boston for a job with the Committee for Public Counsel Services (CPCS), the state public defender agency. She started as an administrator in the Children and Family Law Division, then quickly moved up to investigator in the Massachusetts Superior Court, covering major felonies.

Law school felt like a natural progression, but Kovacs was hesitant to step back from her career, even for a part-time JD program. But being surrounded by lawyers helped propel her to law school.

Related: Everything You Need to Know About Becoming a Public Interest Lawyer

“I wanted to do what the attorneys do,” Kovacs says. “I wanted to be able to litigate on behalf of my clients. I wanted to do more than just interview witnesses or go to scenes…and I think I’ll do it better now that I’ve had eight years of professional experience.”

So she took the leap and applied to New England Law. “I saw the school, and I loved it. It felt like a community,” Kovacs says. And as a graduate of a women’s college, Kovacs appreciated New England Law’s roots as a law school exclusively for women.

Today, she’s grateful for the part-time JD experience and the perspective her “day job” afforded her. “It’s helped me keep my feet on the ground,” she says. “When I’m wrapped up in contract law or torts, it’s like, ‘Oh, my gosh, I’m working with a client who’s facing life in prison without the possibility of parole.’ So it gives me perspective that I really need to work with indigent people.”

With her new legal skills and ample real-world experience, Kovacs graduated prepared for the next step in her career. “With New England Law on my résumé, I had five job offers to choose from,” Kovacs says. “I was in this beautiful position where I had the opportunity to choose between a few different public defender agencies.” She ended up choosing the Legal Aid Society in New York, taking a position in their criminal defense trial practice unit. “They do such amazing work,” she says. “I couldn’t be more excited.”

With an interest in immigration law as well, Kovacs says she hopes she can explore that area of the law someday, perhaps starting or joining a firm that will allow her to combine her interests in immigration, investigations, and criminal law. Whatever she does, she’ll be ready for the next challenge, living up to the legacy of the ones who came before her.

“You can see future as a thrill or a threat,” Kovacs says. “I think it’s thrilling.”

Learn more about studying public interest law.