Public and capital defense lawyer Ed Ungvarsky ’90 returned to campus to speak about his career on Wednesday, Oct. 30. The talk, held at the Gordon Career Center, was co-sponsored by the African American Studies Department, Government Department, the POC Pre-Law Society, and Wesleyan Mock Trial. In the talk, Ungvarsky offered anecdotes about his career, including his decision to leave government work to open his own firm, and advice for students interested in pursing careers in law.
Ungvarsky spoke with students in attendance about both the positive and negative aspects of his profession, providing insight into how he built his career and eventually opened his own firm. He spoke first on how he went into law, a story that began when he graduated from Wesleyan with a bachelor’s degree in Government and went on to Yale Law School. He then clerked for the Honorable Frank M. Johnson, Jr. on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit. Ungvarsky said that he spent many years working as a renowned public and capital defense attorney, going on to lead the Northern Virginia Capital Defender Office from 2009 to 2018.
Though he has garnered success as a defense attorney and is now a regular faculty member of Harvard Law School’s Trial Advocacy Workshop, Ungvarsky decided to open his own practice, Ungvarsky Law, PLLC, last year in Virginia. He said that he left the government primarily because he wanted more freedom in choosing which cases to take and who he represented in court.
“I felt that I had grown, I felt I was not being able to do what I wanted to,” Ungvarsky said. “I wanted to represent people who were harassed by the police in a misdemeanor case. I wanted to represent people who wanted to sue the police. I wanted to be involved in representing people who were protesting. I wanted to be able to do whatever I could do to sort of help advance and push this movement that had gone past me.”
One way Ungvarsky said he has been able to engage with more current events was with the Wesleyan interns he hires in both the summer and winter. He spoke about how he had learned from the two students who interned at his firm this past summer.
“When they were interning with me last summer, it was just so clear that my politics had grown old and stale, in a way,” Ungvarsky said. “There were just things I just don’t get and don’t understand.”
Students were also given time to ask Ungvarsky about his motivations to go into public defense, what his daily schedule looks like, and important moments in his career. When asked about significant cases that he remembers, Ungvarsky made it clear that his life has been greatly impacted by the work he chose to go into.
“I think every case has changed me,” Ungvarsky said. “I think the work has generally made me a better person. I don’t really think I was a great person when I was younger, you know, looking back at who I was, but each case, each work, has changed me. And if it doesn’t change you, then maybe you’re not doing the right thing. If it’s not impacting you in a way that’s not affecting you, and by affecting you it’s gonna cause you to change…then maybe you should be doing something else.”
Andrew Lu ’23, who was interested in the talk because he is considering law as a possible career in the future, said hearing from Ungvarsky allowed him to learn about defense law from a uniquely direct source.
“I’m exploring it as a possible path,” Lu said. “It’s just neat to see how the experience is in the field in real life.”
Lu believes that such career events for students can play a vital role in helping them learn more about professions they may be considering pursuing and can also help introduce students to jobs they might not have known about before.
“I think it’s very helpful to have these events where we hear first-hand what it’s like to be out there being a public defense lawyer, being a real estate finance investor,” Lu said. “Just getting that exposure of real experiences and whether that’s a possible avenue that I go down or somebody else goes down…. I think the most important thing right now is just exposure because I don’t have a lot of knowledge of what’s really out there, and there’s just so many things to do.”
Jiyu Shin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.