On the surface, one of the cases attorney Kate Conyers handled early in her career at the the Salt Lake County Legal Defenders Association looked impossible to beat.
The defendant, her client, had signed a confession admitting to theft at Wal-Mart. Filling in for a colleague at the jury trial, Conyers first met the defendant on the morning the trial started, unsure of what a possible explanation for the confession could be. The tide of the case suddenly turned with the defendant’s explanation for signing the confession: she’d only signed it after loss prevention officers threatened her for hours, refusing to allow her to use the restroom until she’d used it.
The defendant was acquitted and Conyers realized how the legal profession can make a difference. And she’s made a difference in the lives of many since graduating from the S.J. Quinney College of Law in 2008. In addition to serving as a felony attorney at LDA, Conyers serves on the boards of the young lawyers division, Women Lawyers of Utah, Salt Lake County Bar Association, Utah Minority Bar Association and Utah Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.
She was recently awarded the prestigious Sandra Day O’Connor Award for Professional Service through the American Inns of Court. She spoke to the S.J. Quinney College of Law in a recent Q&A session about her path through law school and her legal career today.
What made you interested in going to law school?
I’ve always been very interested in human rights from all different philosophies, including law, policy, and history. When I was considering going to law school, I looked to a lot of my local, national, and international heroes and mentors in an attempt to discover how they got to where they are. Most of them had a law degree and/or a masters of public administration, so I decided to earn both through the joint JD/MPA program at the University of Utah with the hopes of achieving similar things to what they achieved.
What do you do today? How did your time at the law school shape and/or help what you are currently doing?
I currently practice as a felony attorney at Salt Lake Legal Defenders. I absolutely love my job. I can’t imagine a better one! So many things at the law school influenced what I’m currently doing. I first learned about LDA from a job announcement at the law school. After being hired, I had the opportunity to work at LDA during part of my second year and all of my third year of law school. I was also heavily influenced by Joan Watt, LDA’s former Appellate Chief, who was my adjunct professor in Appellate Advocacy. I respected her so much and wanted to work for her so I could continue learning from her. Finally, it was all of my classmates who were also clerking and working at LDA at the time who encouraged me to apply to work there after practicing civil litigation at Snell & Wilmer for two years. I had a great experience at Snell, but I was incredibly excited about the prospect of returning to LDA as an attorney.
What is one memorable experience from law school that will always stay with you?
One of my favorite memories of law school is actually documented on YouTube! During my second year, I served as the President of the Women’s Law Caucus. At that time, WLC hosted its annual fundraiser to raise funds for the local domestic violence shelter. After that year’s bake sale, we were $120 short of our goal to raise $1000. Later that month at Law Prom/Barrister’s Ball, I challenged Dean Chodosh (his first year at the law school) to dance on stage. It was just something silly I did and I assumed it wouldn’t go anywhere. I was incredibly surprised when he said it would, but only if I “paid” him by raising the rest of the funds needed for our fundraiser in less than ten minutes. I sprang into action. I grabbed the microphone from the DJ and sold my plan to my fellow students and friends, and in less than ten minutes, we raised $150! What happened next was even more incredible!! Dean Chodosh danced to the entirety of Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean”! Apparently even then you couldn’t do anything without it ending up on social media. Dean Chodosh’s dance made it to YouTube (search: Napoleon Deon-o-Mite, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8HkKy1ym2fk), which may have helped him be named “Hottest Dean of the Year” for law schools across the nation!
Outside of work, tell us about something interesting that you like to do?
Outside of work, I enjoy volunteering with various Bar-related organizations, including Young Lawyers Division, Women Lawyers of Utah, Utah State Bar Board of Commissioners, and the Salt Lake County Bar Association. One of my favorite volunteer/pro bono projects is the Street Legal Clinic. I enjoy meeting the students who volunteer at the clinic and helping them provide help to the low income individuals that come to the clinic. I really enjoy meeting and networking with law students and attorneys alike! In my spare time, I enjoy watching University of Utah football and basketball, spending time with my 20+ nieces and nephews, and travelling (most recently to Cuba!!).
You were recently honored with the Sandra Day O’Connor Award. Why was this a meaningful milestone for you?
I am incredibly humbled to have received the Sandra Day O’Connor Award for Professional Service through the American Inns of Court. I was amazed when I learned that my mentor and friend Linda Jones from Zimmerman Jones Booher nominated me for this national award, and even more so when I learned I was to receive it. The day I received the award at the Supreme Court of the United States was the most humbling and remarkable day of my life thus far. It was special for so many reasons: I met and spoke with one of my heroes, Justice Sonia Sotomayor; my friends, family members and I met and interacted with dozens of judges from across the United States; and I gave a five-minute speech at the SCOTUS podium just feet before Justice Sotomayor and in front of the full SCOTUS courtroom. It was completely surreal. But more important is the meaning of the award itself. I respect Justice O’Connor immensely and it is a privilege to receive an award named after her and that recognizes public service. I believe that this award is more about our legal community than it is about anything else because everything I’ve done that was recognized, every step I’ve taken, has been at the encouragement of so many mentors and friends and a result of the leadership they’ve provided and the examples they’ve set. I am fortunate to be a member of our great legal community and I hope to live up to the spirit of this award.