By Robyn Konkel
Ms. Konkel is a Senior Attorney-Adviser at the Social Security Administration, where she has worked since September 2010. She graduated with a BA in Public Policy from Washington and Lee University in 2005, and completed concentrations in Poverty Studies and Women’s Studies. Afterwards, she completed an MPP at the University of Michigan Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy, where she focused on social welfare policy and quantitative analysis. She obtained a JD from the University of Michigan Law School in December 2009.
“What mattered is that I could see how the criminal justice system could easily, though unintentionally, result in wrongful convictions or indefinite institutionalizations of innocent defendants with intellectual disabilities,” writes Konkel (W&L 2005), who works for the Social Security Administration.
I chose Washington and Lee for one reason only. I wanted to major in public policy, and it was one of the only colleges that had a program in this particular field. Within W&L’s public policy major, students could choose to focus on an area of policy that interested them. Of the concentrations available, the poverty focus spoke to me the loudest. I grew up in a household that often struggled to make ends meet. I have two loving, hard-working parents, but Wisconsin winters often meant my father was laid off from his railroad construction work, and exposure to harsh chemicals in the factory where my mother worked caused her significant health setbacks. I knew first-hand that hard work is often not enough to guarantee financial security.
I did not expect to be challenged as much as I was by the Shepherd Program. During my sophomore year, I completed a one-credit service learning course along with the introductory poverty class. Every week I spent with the Rockbridge Area Department of Social Services left me emotionally drained. I saw a family abusing an elderly relative, housing her in a trailer without running utilities. I met a daughter who committed benefit fraud using the fact that she had the same name as her mother. I met foster parents desperate to adopt the child placed with them, but a legal system devoted to reuniting the child with the biological mother and, by extension, her sexual predator boyfriend. The overall lesson I learned was a hard one: no matter how well social welfare programs are set up, there will be people who make bad decisions. The trick is to not be disillusioned by those few, but instead to advocate for and design poverty programs to benefit those who, despite their best efforts, find themselves in need.
The following summer, I interned with the London Kentucky Department of Public Advocacy through the Shepherd Consortium. There, I completed a number of legal tasks, including interviewing clients in prison, participating in a murder investigation, organizing notebooks for trials, and sometimes answering phone calls from defendants. My biggest task involved a man I never met, a mentally retarded man facing double murder charges. On his behalf, I conducted extensive legal research and authored a motion arguing that the CAST-MR, the test used to determine his competency to stand trial, did not satisfy the Daubert evidentiary requirements for scientific evidence. My motion failed, but my eyes were opened. Ultimately, this particular defendant’s guilt or innocence did not matter to me. What mattered is that I could see how the criminal justice system could easily, though unintentionally, result in wrongful convictions or indefinite institutionalizations of innocent defendants with intellectual disabilities. Inspired by my work in London, KY, I spent my senior year researching and writing my honors thesis entitled: “Making the Punishment Fit the Crime: Seven Reforms to Better Protect Defendants with Cognitive Disabilities.”
Through my experiences with the Shepherd Program, I knew I wanted to combine legal and policy work. I pursued graduate degrees that would let me do just that. I chose the University Of Michigan Ford School Of Public Policy because it housed the National Poverty Center. There, I was able to learn from the leading scholars in social welfare policy—many of whom authored the books we read in the Shepherd courses. My work at the Ford School provided me with the tools of the policy world, most importantly the ability to use data analytics to identify inefficiencies and problems, craft solutions, and measure the effectiveness of those solutions. My law degree gave me the license needed to obtain the kind of job I wanted and the authority and respect that comes with being a lawyer.
I could not be in a more perfect place than the Social Security Administration. I am both a lawyer and a data scientist. At SSA, I can impact the lives of individual disability claimants, and I can also use data analytics to help us produce more timely and better quality decisions agency-wide. I use the lessons I learned from the Shepherd Program every day as I do my part to improve the largest social welfare program in the world.
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