When Carla Laroche ’12 arrived at Columbia Law School, she had a vague notion of what she wanted to do with a law degree. Having recently worked at an alternative sentencing program to keep youths charged with felonies out of the adult prison system, she briefly considered becoming a public defender.
But Laroche felt confused enough about her options to pay a visit to Petal Modeste, assistant dean and dean of Career Services.
“I was just feeling unsure about what I should be asking myself and other people about opportunities,” Laroche recalls. “I just walked into Petal’s office and said, ‘Hi, could we schedule an appointment to talk about my life?’” she adds, with her characteristically infectious laugh. “And Petal replied, ‘Sure, who are you?’”
Modeste recalls being immediately impressed by Laroche’s candor. “We spent a lot of time exploring her values—what she felt strongly about, what impact she wanted to have.”
Laroche began participating in the Law School’s Incarceration and the Family Clinic and soon zeroed in on her passion: advocating for youth in need and underserved families. Now a law fellow at the Southern Poverty Law Center in Tallahassee, Florida, she has become deeply involved in the issues of mass incarceration of vulnerable youth, sentencing disparities, and the attendant toll on families.
As part of an effort to change the system at the policy and advocacy levels, she serves on the American Bar Association’s Commission on Youth at Risk and is a committee chair for the ABA Criminal Justice Section and the ABA Section of Civil Rights and Social Justice.
On July 31, Laroche will be honored with the National Bar Association Young Lawyers Division’s Humanitarian Award during the association’s annual convention in Toronto. Two days later, she will be recognized by the association as one of the country’s top lawyers under the age of 40. Earlier this summer, she received the ABA’s “On the Rise – Top 40 Young Lawyers” honor.
In retrospect, Laroche sees her own family as a compass that guided her to find her calling. Her parents, Haitian immigrants, came to the United States in their 20s and worked factory jobs. Sacrifice and familial support, in that sense, weren’t so much an ideal but a lived example.
In 2006, after graduating with an A.B. from Princeton University, Laroche spent a year teaching in Tanzania. In 2008, she worked at the Manhattan-based Center for Alternative Sentencing and Employment Services, which seeks to divert youth from the prison system and into rehabilitation programs.
After her experiences in Tanzania and New York, Laroche had thoughts of continuing her criminal justice advocacy work in developing countries and enrolled at the Harvard Kennedy School to supplement her law degree with a master’s in public policy. At Columbia, she received hands-on experience through the Incarceration and the Family Clinic, representing a mother who was trying to win her parental rights back on appeal. Laroche also taught family law at the maximum-security Bedford Hills Correctional Facility for Women in Westchester County, New York.
In 2012, a week after graduating as a Harlan Stone Fiske Scholar and a class marshal, Laroche received her master's degree from Harvard. She worked for a year at a Washington, D.C., firm before clerking for a district court judge in Florida. She spent two years as a pro bono fellow at the Richmond, Virginia, firm Hunton & Williams. Her ability to speak Creole made her a valuable asset for the Central Virginia Legal Aid Society, which sent her to do outreach work with Haitian migrant farmworkers.
Now at the Southern Poverty Law Center, Laroche is working to change the state of Florida’s practice of prosecuting children as adults. Florida is one of 13 states where so-called “direct file” statutes give prosecutors wide discretion to try children in adult court, and one of only three states that does not permit a judge to review such decisions. “There are many obstacles against reform,” Laroche says, “but the consequences of inaction are dire and the fight is worth it.” Raising public awareness, she adds, is crucial to effecting reform.
Having received valuable mentoring from others, including advisers at the Law School’s Social Justice Initiatives, Laroche also makes time to be a mentor for Ms. JD, a nonprofit organization whose mission is to help aspiring female attorneys.
And, from their first meeting, Laroche and Modeste have never lost touch. Modeste now calls Laroche “almost the definition of a 21st-century lawyer,” someone who is “not stuck in any lane,” open and agile in her thinking and driven by her foundational values.
Posted July 24, 2017