Champion of Children’s Rights
Early in junior high, a running coach pulled her off the track and handed her a shot put. On her first try, she came within a foot of the school record. She soon set a new record, which still stands. As a high school freshman in the San Francisco Bay Area, O’Connor made it to the state track championships her freshman year; her school shot put and discus records remain unbroken.
“Field games are more about leverage and torque than being muscly,” she observed. “Shot put and discus are really mental sports. You have only a few short steps and a short amount of time to do what you need to do, so you have to be extremely focused.”
Thanks to her strong focus on academics as well as sports, O’Connor attended Princeton University. She was a member of the varsity track and field team all four years of college and was elected field captain her junior and senior years. In addition to majoring in anthropology, she earned a special certificate in women and gender studies.
“Anthropology is really an ‘umbrella’ discipline; it’s religion, history, law, politics, art and culture are all rolled into one,” said O’Connor. Although her thesis adviser suggested she consider going to law school, O’Connor wasn’t initially interested in a legal career. “In college, I never so much as darkened the door of the pre-law adviser. My whole family is in education and law, so I wanted to make my own way. Later on, I realized my brain is wired a certain way.
“When I was a kid, my father would work though logic puzzles with me,” she said. “I learned to think through hypothetical situations and develop quick retorts. It helped me learn to think on my feet and made me able to handle any situation.”
After graduating from Princeton in 2003, O’Connor applied for numerous legal assistant positions with firms on the East Coast but was continuously told she was “overqualified” for the job. She eventually accepted a position with an attorney close to her mother’s home in Etna, Calif., near the Oregon border. “I was hired to provide extra help on big cases,” said O’Connor, who conducted research, filed complaints and helped draft motions for the attorney from March 2005 to August 2007.
O’Connor enrolled at Willamette University College of Law in the fall of 2007. In addition to earning honors in Legal Research and Writing both semesters as a 1L, O’Connor worked as a student assistant in the course. During her second year of law school, she was a member of the Jessup International Moot Court Team, worked on the editorial staff of the Willamette Journal of International Law and Dispute Resolution and served as ombudsman of the Student Bar Association.
During summer breaks, O’Connor returned to California, where she interned part time with the Siskiyou County Public Defender, researching and drafting motions and appeals and assisting attorneys with trial preparation. “I was able to shadow the public defender,” said O’Connor, who worked on several cases involving juvenile defendants. “Working with child defendants is very different from other types of cases; you’re more idealistic. You feel like you have a chance with them, that they are still moldable, that you can have an impression on them.”
When O’Connor returned to Willamette to start her final year of law school this fall, she came back with a new last name — she married in July — and with a job offer in hand. When she graduates with the Class of 2010, she will return to the Siskiyou County Public Defender’s office, where she will continue her work with children defendants. “I want to be an advocate for children, to stand up for them and give them a voice,” she said. “It may be the first time in their lives they’ve had someone do that for them.”
No doubt, O’Connor has the mental and physical vigor to champion the cause.