Kristen Stanley

Cornell Women’s Advocacy Network: Women in Law

Kristen Stanley ’01, JD ’07 is an assistant clinical professor in the Lawyering Program at Cornell Law School. For most of her career, Stanley represented death-sentenced individuals in their federal habeas corpus and state post-conviction proceedings in Federal District Court, Circuit Courts of Appeals, the United States Supreme Court, and in state court proceedings. Stanley also has her Masters in Social Work. She specializes in understanding the effects of—and effective treatment of—trauma. Her focus is on the ways that exposure to traumatic experiences impacts neurobiology, human development, brain functioning, and interpersonal relationships, particularly in the context of the criminal judicial system. She is also interested in the social, cultural, and political forces that shape exposure to, and recovery from, traumatic experiences.

What drew you to the legal profession?

After I received my undergraduate degree from Cornell University, I worked at a non-profit agency helping to support individuals and families whose lives were affected by interpersonal violence, sexual abuse, sexual assault, and harassment. In helping individuals navigate these issues, I witnessed how the legal system can both support vulnerable individuals and reinforce inequality and inequity. That inspired me to work to change the system for the better.

At Cornell Law School, I participated in the Capital Punishment Clinic, where I worked on behalf of individuals sentenced to death. Capital defense combined so many of my interests and illuminates how social issues—racism, poverty, lack of mental health, and other social services—directly impact individuals in the criminal legal system and the criminal system itself. I loved the work so much that it became my career path, and I spent more than a decade representing people on death row.

What most excites you about your work?

Teaching law students is enormously rewarding. Effective lawyering requires knowing oneself deeply so you can lean into strengths, actively seek to improve less-developed skills and work to improve analytic and interpersonal skills. I enjoy helping students find their path as a lawyer, particularly students for whom—due to long-standing racism, sexism, and elitism in the profession—a legal career has not always been possible: students of color, women, first-generation students, international students, and so on. As a first-generation law student, I often questioned whether I belonged in the legal field. It’s been wonderful to return to my alma mater, share my experience with students, and help them imagine what is possible.

In your career, how have you found mentors and made connections along the way?

I have been particularly fortunate to have had amazing mentors throughout my career, largely more experienced colleagues. They helped me sharpen my own skills and experiences and acknowledge my own strengths. My mentors have encouraged me to be myself and have believed in me, particularly when I doubted myself.

Do you have any advice for Cornellians starting out in the legal field?

I encourage law students to pursue their passion. When you believe in what you do, amazing things are possible. It may not be easy to go against the grain, but it is worth it.

What role has the Cornell network played in your career?

Professors John Blume and Sheri Johnson, founders of the Cornell Death Penalty Project, have been hugely influential in my life as a law student, death penalty lawyer, and now as a professor. Not only did they introduce me to capital defense through the clinic, but they also provided support when I was applying for jobs, welcomed me into the community after graduation, and have been hugely helpful in making the shift to academia.

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