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Samantha Stagias '16 realized her dream of becoming an assistant district attorney after her high school history teacher asked her to participate in a mock trial during her sophomore year.
“He thought I might be interested in something like that because I was always debating with people in class,” said Stagias, who grew up in Sturbridge, Mass., and attended Tantasqua Regional High School. “At that point I really didn't have an idea of what I wanted to do after high school, so I said yes to the mock trial thinking that it might give me some kind of insight. For the trial, I was assigned to the role of the prosecutor, we received a criminal case, and a couple of lawyers from the local community came into the class and taught us how to navigate through objections, openings, closings, and how to cross-examine a witness. It was a very wholesome experience and what ultimately determined my plan to go to law school.”
After researching local law schools, Stagias decided to enroll in Albany Law's 3+3 program; she attended Union College -- where she majored in Law and Public Policy -- for the first three years before transferring to Albany Law to complete her senior year in undergraduate and begin her 1L year simultaneously. “I knew that Albany Law was a great school for public service internships and I couldn't see myself getting the experience that I could get at Albany Law at any other school, especially with Albany Law located right in the heart of the Capital Region and with the District Attorney's offices, the U.S. Attorney and the Attorney General all right in my backyard -- it just made sense.”
“The Special Victims Unit was really hard, but the reward was so high that it was worth the emotional toll that it took to work in that environment. It was a powerful experience and the most important thing that I learned through all of it was to prosecute with compassion.”
The summer after her first year at Albany Law, Stagias interned back home in Massachusetts at the Worcester County District Attorney's office, where she observed pretrial and trial proceedings and wrote memos to the court.
“Because I was a first-year law student and it was my first legal internship, I didn't really get to perform many hands-on duties, it was more of an observational internship, but watching all the district attorneys in action got me really excited,” Stagias said. “So by the time I got back to school I was itching to jump in.”
That fall, she participated in the Domestic Violence Prosecution Hybrid Clinic taught by Professor Mary Lynch.
“It's a typical clinic atmosphere combined with a field placement,” Stagias said. “You have a class component where you engage in a bunch of simulations like a mock victim interview, a mock arraignment and bail hearing, a simulation for plea negotiations, etc., so you are getting in-class feedback in a simulation setting but at the same time you are doing a field placement at the District Attorney's office. It was an amazing experience because I was getting feedback from my professor where I was making mistakes, and I was making them in a learning environment where I could learn how to correct them before actually going into court and making those mistakes when the stakes are so much higher.”
She was assigned two of her own cases and was able to pick her own jury, argue the pre-trial motions, give the opening statement, conduct the direct examinations of all the witnesses, cross-examine the witnesses of the defense, and give the closing statement all on her own.
Stagias completed her field placement for the clinic at the Schenectady County District Attorney's Office in the Special Victims Unit, where she had the opportunity to become more involved with Integrated Domestic Violence Court proceedings by talking through plea negotiations with the defense counsel, writing legal memorandum, speaking on the record, and learning how to perform case assessments.
“The Special Victims Unit was really hard, but the reward was so high that it was worth the emotional toll that it took to work in that environment,” she said. “It was a powerful experience and the most important thing that I learned through all of it was to prosecute with compassion. I learned that even though you are a prosecutor and you hold these peoples' lives in your hands, you need to be able to understand their backstory in order to define justice in that case.”
In the spring of 2014, Stagias clerked for Senior Judge Thomas McAvoy, the federal judge of the Northern District of N.Y.
“We had a speaker in one of our classes tell us, 'Never repeat, always complement,' and that struck home with me,” she said. “I had already interned at two different DA's offices, in two different states, and in two different units, so I didn't feel that interning at another District Attorney's office would prove beneficial for me. I also wanted to see the case from the other side, from the judge's perspective.”
This past summer, Stagias headed back to Worcester, where she secured her Student Practice Order and became a Rule 3:03 intern. She was assigned two of her own cases and was able to pick her own jury, argue the pretrial motions, give the opening statement, conduct the direct examinations of all the witnesses, cross-examine the witnesses of the defense, and give the closing statement all on her own.
“I had a supervisor with me in case something went wrong, which it didn't, and both OUI cases ended in guilty verdicts,” Stagias said. “It was an absolutely incredible experience.”
Stagias maintains that she was nervous at first because she did not know how everyone in the courtroom, especially the defense, would respond to a student prosecutor: “But everyone was really nice, and very helpful, so it ended up being a really great learning environment. I am so glad that I took the clinic with Professor Lynch and took as many practical classes that I could, they were really what prepared me to feel comfortable in court; the fact that I had already gone through the motions before in a simulated environment prepared me for the 3:03 internship more than anything that I could have read in a textbook.”
Stagias is serving as a TA for Professor Lynch's clinic this fall and she encourages all incoming law students to get as much hands-on experience as they can through criminal classes and criminal procedure classes that will get them up on their feet and engaged in trial procedures.
“The experience is invaluable. You're just not going to learn that from a textbook,” Stagias said.
This fall she is participating in a yearlong field placement at the U.S. Attorney's Office, where she will engage in prosecution at the federal level. Stagias plans to take the bar in Massachusetts and New York so that she does not limit herself to working either at home or away from home. She has her sights set on becoming an assistant district attorney and working in a District Attorney's office somewhere.
“Eventually I would love to become a judge,” Stagias said. “I don't know how far down the line that will be or what I will do in between, but I think being an assistant district attorney is a great start.”