Gianna Emanuele Fernandez ’20 has first-hand experience that reminds her to make time for what’s really important.
Working in private practice in downtown Albany she learned a lot right after passing the bar in the summer of 2020, but decided to make a change that would benefit her physical and mental health in the long run. An opportunity presented itself to help families and children close to home with the Montgomery County Department of Social Services.
“I decided to change and I’m very happy. I like working with people and constantly being on the move and in court almost every day. I’m being pushed to learn different things all the time,” she said. “People may think family law isn’t as glamorous as other fields of law, but I say it's almost the most important. Family is the backbone of our society.”
“I'm afforded this really awesome opportunity to work with people through the whole system, through the whole process,” she said. “We get a lot of cases concerning very heavy, heavy topics and situations—and especially with COVID—we're dealing with a serious mental health crisis out there. There is a lack of services for people.”
The work is emotionally difficult, but it is making a difference.
“Sometimes it takes a CPS case, going through the family court proceedings, and supervision afterwards to give you perspective on life and your community, and it is not for the faint of heart, but when you see a child get adopted after two years, that's a great feeling. When you see a child reunited with parents who are now through mental health treatment and/or substance abuse treatment, that’s also a great outcome. And when you see the difference DSS intervention and cooperation with various community resources can make on a family unit, it makes it all worthwhile,” she said.
While she sees the importance of close connections daily, she learned just how crucial support systems like families are—and how important life itself is—during her time at Albany Law School.
In the spring of 2019, wrapping up her 2L year, Fernandez underwent open heart surgery.
Her doctors expected minimal complications and she timed the surgery to seamlessly continue law school. Instead, after the procedure she was on life support for a week.
With her family by her side, she made a full recovery, but the ordeal reminded her of life’s fragility.
“That experience shapes a lot of my decisions, which is sometimes difficult, but it has helped me prioritize what’s important,” she said.
Moving on from the scare, Fernandez was Editor-in-Chief of the Government Law Review during her 3L year and selected for the Isabelle Redman ‘99 Prize at Commencement which recognizes students with qualities personified by Redman: courage, perseverance, and graciousness in confronting extraordinary challenges. Redman was a police officer who suffered serious injuries after a car crash. After years of intense recovery and still using a brace and crutches, Redman crossed the stage at the law school’s 1999 Commencement.
Nowadays, with all of life’s lessons in mind and heart, Fernandez takes advantage of things she otherwise would have taken for granted previously. Simple things, like dinner with her husband or parents. And working in family law allows Fernandez an opportunity to help families get to a place where they also appreciate and nurture the important things in life.
“It's tough because after law school you are put under a lot of pressure to figure out what you want to do and where you want to do it, how much money you want to make, and how it’s all going to look,” she said. “Our mental and emotional health is just as important as our physical health, and the image that is pushed onto us in law school to attain as lawyers. And eventually I can promise you that your mental and emotional health will undoubtedly influence your physical health.”
“Life is short, take it from me. Make decisions that are best for you," she said.