“I’ve spent a lot of time with people who attended places like Harvard, Yale, Stanford, and Dartmouth, and I can say without a doubt that I was as prepared academically as they were,” says Lynn Robitaille Garcia ’97 (STPEC), general counsel of the Texas Forensic Science Commission. “In fact, I was better prepared to negotiate stressful situations and difficult interpersonal relationships than many of my colleagues because of my UMass experiences.”
Garcia credits an undergraduate extracurricular project as a huge positive influence. “A group of students concerned about the university’s affordability launched a campaign to freeze tuition and fees and obtain an increase in state funding from the legislature,” she explains. “Through that process, I learned how to negotiate with the university administration and organize a statewide campaign to influence the budget. I was appointed to the statewide Higher Education Coordinating Committee and developed strong relationships with legislators like Rep. Ellen Story. I learned how to negotiate tough issues with many diverse stakeholders early in life…skills that continue to serve me to this day.”
The Texas Forensic Science Commission, created by the Texas legislature in 2005, investigates negligence and misconduct in Texas crime laboratories, like the recent incident in a Massachusetts state crime lab where an analyst falsified results. The Commission’s seven scientists and two lawyers receive complaints from the public, including inmates and their families, advocacy agencies like the Innocence Project, and self-disclosures from the laboratories themselves. “My main job,” says Garcia, “involves document gathering, interviewing witnesses, coordinating retesting of evidence and drafting final reports with recommendations.” She also provides legal advice and manages communications with the legislature, the Governor’s Office, media and the public.
Garcia is in a happy place these days, but that wasn’t always the case. After her stellar academic experience at UMass where “classes were challenging, interdisciplinary, and addressed issues that mattered to me,” she says, “the first year of law school at Georgetown was a major let down. At UMass I would stay up until the wee hours in the Student Union with friends from all over the world, talking about political and personal issues, and working on various campaigns. And there were a number of faculty members who changed my life. It was an incredible period of growth for me, but my first year of law school involved none of that—it was pretty much all about memorizing case holdings and rules, and I wondered if I’d made a wrong decision.”
That is, until she was accepted into a political asylum clinic where students worked on actual cases. “I helped a Sudanese pro-democracy activist get asylum,” Garcia says. “Besides being one of the most rewarding and exhilarating experiences of my life, it was then I began to understand the power of a legal education to change people’s lives.”
After law school Garcia joined a large Washington law firm. “Like many of my peers,” she says, “I was so deep in debt with law school loans that I felt it was the only choice for me. Now, I know I could have figured out other options, but at the time I was pretty overwhelmed. Plus, no one I knew growing up earned anything close to the salary potential at a big law firm, so I felt I owed it to a lot of people to give it a try.”
Instilled with a tremendous work ethic by her family’s example, Garcia dove in, working on complex internal investigations where corporate clients were being accused of export control violations, abuses of U.S. anti-corruption laws, or securities law breaches. “I developed an eye for distilling enormous amounts of information into the most critical components,” says Garcia, who was sent all over the world to work on investigations, including a period of living in Paris, extended periods in The Hague and Zurich, and travel in Asia and Latin America.
Law firms can be pretty tough places, Garcia acknowledges, but she developed an incredible network and the firm’s demand for excellence and devotion served her well. Still, when the opportunity arose from the State of Texas to work in public service, Garcia jumped. “During the heyday of my law firm career I learned there is tremendous danger in working 80 hours a week, living off vending machines and takeout with no exercise or time outdoors, she says. “My job now allows for time to be outside and have a silent meditation on most days. These two simple things make me much better at everything else I do.”
Garcia offers aspiring lawyers some advice. “If you really want to be a lawyer, remember it can be a long and tough road,” says Garcia. “I love my job today, but sometimes during and after law school I felt I was suffocating under mounds of unfulfilling work. Trust your instincts. If you believe in yourself and pursue work you love, everything else will fall into place, though it may not seem like it at times. Have faith. And develop strong writing skills. That’s extremely important for any career in law or public policy.”