Upon graduating from law school, Corinne Sumpter spent two years at Georgetown University Law Center as a Prettyman Fellow, which saw her represent indigent clients in trial and teach third-year law students herself. As a founding partner of Sumpter & Gonzalez, she continues to serve in both roles – advocate and teacher – while maintaining part-time office hours and raising three children. With her passion for working with young people, Corinne has cultivated a reputation as one of the finest juvenile defense attorneys in Central Texas, and practices exclusively with those clients. She also continues to bring her expertise and experience into all cases that come through the door at Sumpter & Gonzalez as part of the firm's unique, team-based approach. We caught her in a less busy moment to discuss what it was that attracted her to the defense, her love of working with kids, and finding the good in the gray areas.
Sumpter & Gonzalez: Why did you become a lawyer?
Corinne Sumpter: I know it sounds trite, but I wanted to be able to help people. I wasn't the kind of person who knew she would be a lawyer from childhood. I was in college – I was a women's studies and English major, and I was toying with going down the PhD English route. But one of my favorite women's studies professors was a lawyer, and most of the things I was drawn to in my major were issues of equality and justice, and I thought that law would be a better track. I wanted to do domestic violence and sex abuse work – I basically assumed I wanted to be a prosecutor. I wanted to help where women were being victimized.
S&G: That's a common trajectory at the firm. What was it for you that made you decide to work on the defense?
Corinne: My criminal law professor was a defense lawyer, and she worked in the public defender's service in DC, which is the best public defender in the country. It was the first time I thought about how it wouldn't have to be a conflict working as the defense, even on a case where there was a woman victim, and it was a violent offense. Then I went to work for a summer at a domestic violence organization. And I just didn't like it. I found that a lot of the lawyers I worked with and a lot of the people in the domestic violence movement saw things in a way that was very black-and-white. It was like, "Woman, victim. Man, bad." And I found that women weren't actually being empowered. There are two ways you can handle family violence: You can either empower women to make decisions, and respect that they might make decisions that you might disagree with, like going back, or you can be paternalistic about it, which is sort of what their batterers do. It's controlling them by taking away their decision-making power. So I didn't like it. These situations aren't that cut-and-dried. They're both sometimes hitting. It's messy. I was just turned off by it. So I went to work in another placement at a juvenile public defender's office. And I loved working with the kids. I'd also worked in mental health, and that background, along with the domestic violence work, was very helpful, because a lot of the kids had been facing those issues, either with their families or themselves. I felt like all the pieces came together. I was standing up for someone, which was what I really wanted to do. That's when I decided to apply for the Prettyman Fellowship after law school.
S&G: How did you decide it wouldn't be a conflict to defend men accused of violence against women?
Corinne: I very much found that, no matter who I was working with, I connected with that person. My natural inclination was to find the good in people. Most of the folks who are accused of these things have had some majorly bad things happen to them. They've been victimized somewhere down the line, and it's just a natural flow that you hope that you can help stop. Not necessarily for anyone else, but themselves, first. Because they're not getting anywhere by getting arrested for family violence.
S&G: Do you feel like you're still combating the same problems that you wanted to combat, just from a different side?
Corinne: I never felt like I really switched sides. One of the things I found from working at the juvenile public defender's office is that I actually liked working with kids more than anything, so that's where I've gravitated most of the time. I think that what's translated most of all, to all types of practice that I've done, juvenile and adult, is that, by realizing that it's not all black and white, it's important to know all the gray. And I think that what I've done through my practice is to find the good in the gray. I think what I do best is to be really creative about how to help. In that way, I think I'm sort of combating the same issues, but not from one side or the other – it's sort of from the middle. I want to take it out of the sides. For the client - "It isn't good for you. What's happened to you, what's hurting you? What can we help you with so that you don't then hurt other people? And then how can we keep you out of jail, because that's not going to help you." I like to think that I can find the good in anybody. It's not sides for me - it's the person, and the person that I'm helping. There's going to be a ripple effect. If you help one person, you help everybody else in their life. That's true for all of us.