Briana Zweifler in the King Hall courtyard

Becoming an Attorney: Briana Zweifler, JD

Briana Zweifler JD ‘19 

The work ended up not being as hard academically as I thought. The things that were hard were the way people talked about people who were incarcerated or justice-involved, and how many people believed that the system works well just as it is.

Briana Zweifler earned her JD at UC Davis in 2019 and her BA from UC Berkeley in 2013. She is currently a UC Presidential Public Service Fellow with the National Center for Youth Law working on the California Youth Justice Initiative. While at UC Davis she worked with organizations including the ACLU of Northern California, the Prison Law Office, the Juvenile Division of the Alameda County Public Defender’s Office, and the Yurok Tribal Court. She also interned at the W. Haywood Burns Institute, where she conducted extensive research on youth diversion programs. Here she opens up about her experiences as a her law school student following own involvement with the juvenile and criminal justice systems as a youth and young adult.

What was it like to be a law student?

I had felt completely disempowered by the system as a young person, and being a law student felt like it was directly undoing that. Being on the path to becoming a lawyer helped me really step into myself as a confident and competent adult.  I still get emotional when I think about where I’ve come from and that I am now a licensed attorney.

Did you have any fears about going into law school? 

I was afraid of how hard it would be. I thought that the work would be too difficult, and I worried that I wouldn’t be able to handle the stress. I was also nervous about being really different from my peers. I didn’t think there would be other students with life experiences like mine, and that people would somehow know that I was different.

The work ended up not being as hard academically as I had expected. The things that were hard were the way people talked about people who were incarcerated or justice-involved, and how many people believed that the system works well just as it is.

I related to the people in the cases we read about, and it was hard to not take it personally when others in the classroom would say that people were guilty or deserved long sentences. I didn’t know of any other formerly incarcerated students or faculty at the law school, so I felt really isolated in these experiences.

What was amazing or great about your experience?

I loved the work I did as an intern. It felt great to be doing the work that I came to law school to do: helping people who had been impacted by the punishment system, working on policies to reduce the reach of the system, and using my newfound understanding of the law to imagine something better.  

I also really enjoyed learning the language of the law. It demystified so many of the processes I had experienced when I was younger and helped me understand why certain things happened the way they did. In a lot of ways, being a law student was incredibly empowering. It also made me really mad, which motivated me to work harder so I could become a lawyer and change laws that I thought were unjust.

How did your life history help you?

There were things that I just intuitively understood about the legal system from all the times that I had been in court or read legal documents related to my cases. My experiences also helped me understand the true meaning behind a lot of the things we learned. Legal education is all about getting you to take something, like a law, at face value, and not asking why or whether it’s right. My experiences helped keep me grounded in reality and take in all this new information without losing sight of who I was or the activism that had driven me to go to law school. 

How did you find your community at UC Davis? How was it important to you?

I struggled with the weight of the constant negative messages I was getting about people who were accused or convicted of crimes. I knew I needed more support from students who’d had similar experiences and wanted to organize a formerly incarcerated student group so that other students wouldn’t have to go through what I was going through, but I didn’t know any at UC Davis! The law school is pretty separate from the undergrad campus – we’re on a different schedule and all our classes are in the law school building, which is on the outskirts of campus. Eventually a professor connected me with BTS. I went to a meeting and was immediately welcomed. 

I don’t know what I would’ve done without BTS. Even though there weren’t any other law students in the group, it was a relief just to be around other students who understood my background. It felt great to know that there were people on campus who understood what I was going through and had my back. We organized some events together at the law school and I loved creating events that spoke to our community and would also raise the visibility of BTS. 

I also learned a long time ago how important being of service to those around me was to my own healing. Being a part of BTS allowed me to both give and receive care and validation and support. I could let folks who had been incarcerated know that we were human beings just like everybody else and capable of achieving academic and career success, while also being reminded of those same things myself. 

What would you tell another BTS student? 

You are not alone! Find your community and invest your time and attention in the people and activities that nourish you. I meet formerly incarcerated folks all the time who think they can’t become a lawyer. That’s not true and there are more and more people who are proving it all the time. 

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