Thinking on Her Feet in a Small Town
There was a time when Amy Williams (SF03) was on academic probation at St. John’s because she was terrified to speak in class. Even though St. John’s was the only school she applied to, she was embarrassed to open her mouth. Now an assistant district attorney in Juneau, Alaska, Amy says that her career wouldn’t be possible if it weren’t for her sophomore year of college.
“I’m not exaggerating. Without the experience of overcoming my fear of speaking in seminar, I don’t think I could be a trial lawyer,” she said. As she worked on her shyness, she found that her confidence grew the more she talked. She offered her thoughts to the group little by little and before long “I was talking just like anybody else in class.”
Amy became interested in the law through her work-study position at the non-profit organization, Concerned Citizens for Nuclear Safety, in Santa Fe. After she graduated, they hired her full time. When she left the organization after two years to attend law school at the University of New Mexico, she imagined she’d go into environmental law, but she quickly discovered she was on the wrong path.
“One thing about environmental law that always kind of drove me crazy was that projects would last for decades and you’d never see any results. It was maddening. And I never did find my foothold. Everybody in environmental law has a specialty, like water, or air emissions, or soil, but there was never one area that I was really passionate about. I was always interested in criminal law, and they were the best grades I was getting in law school, but I didn’t think I was the kind of person who could practice criminal law. So I made a decision to overcome my natural fears. I’d done it once and I knew I could do it again,” she says.
When she was looking for a job she applied to, among other places, the district attorney’s office in Juneau, Alaska. Originally from Socorro, New Mexico, she was living in Albuquerque with her boyfriend, Terwiliger Paige (SFGI07), when she found out she’d landed the ADA position in Juneau. Amy and Terwiliger decided to take a risk and move to Alaska. They didn’t expect to be there more than a couple of years, but now they are happy homeowners and Terwiliger is a brewer for Alaskan Brewing Company. They plan to stay.
In Juneau, which has a population of less than 33,000, everyone knows each other, so there is very little separation between Amy’s work life and her personal life. The lawyers in her office are responsible for prosecuting everything from Fish and Game crimes to homicide, and they must prosecute their neighbors, friends, and the people they see every week at Costco.
“The local halfway house takes its inmates to the grocery store at the same time I typically go shopping on the weekends,” Amy says. “One day, I go in—I’m wearing a baseball cap and I’m dressed down and all of that—and there’s a group of like six guys I’ve convicted, standing by the shampoo aisle.” She tried not to draw attention to herself, but one of them noticed her and called out “Hey, D.A. Williams.” And then they all repeated, in unison, “Hey, D.A. Williams.”
“All I could do was smile and wave at them,” she laughs. “St. John’s taught me how to think on my feet. The big difference between being a trial lawyer and being a student at St. John’s is that unlike when I’m talking about a major piece of philosophy or a major work of literature, when I’m talking about my case, I’m the master of my case. I’m not interpreting anybody else’s work; I’m writing this for the jury myself. I’ve been doing it for five years and it’s second nature now.”