Law School Students of the Year: Fatima Agosto, Drexel

Fatima Agosto was born in Trenton, New Jersey, and is a first-generation college graduate. Growing up in a low-income neighborhood in Trenton (and later, in Willingboro, New Jersey), Agosto says her early life experience inspired her to become a criminal defense attorney.

“Knowing people affected by criminal justice system, people I knew in my community, I was able to develop an outlook that put everything into perspective,” she said. “Coming from a low socioeconomic status and being a woman of color, that played a really big role in the way I see things.”

Agosto earned her bachelor’s degree in 2012 from Rutgers University’s prestigious Douglass Residential College, where she majored in philosophy and political science. 

After college, she worked in retail before beginning a two-year stint as a paralegal at a law firm that handled medical malpractice and nursing home neglect. 

All along, her aim was to go to law school, and she qualified for a Rising Advocate Scholarship at the Kline School of Law, based on her academic credentials. The experiences she sought out in law school have reinforced her interest in public interest law and the importance of representing those caught up in the criminal justice system. Agosto consistently sought out opportunities to work – and even to study – with individuals who are incarcerated.

“You’re not going to be a good lawyer in public interest and criminal defense work if you don’t humanize the client,” she said. “You have to be able to distinguish and decipher that this is a person.”

Aiming eventually to get a job as a public defender, she will complete a clerkship with Judge Terrence Cook of the Superior Court of New Jersey’s Criminal Division (Burlington Vicinage) after graduating in May.

Agosto will graduate just two years after she began working toward her J.D. One of a small cohort of students in the school's Accelerated J.D. program, she has performed exceptionally well in diverse dimensions, despite the rigors of completing her studies in a dramatically compressed timeline. 

A member of the editorial staff of the Drexel Law Review, her academic performance has remained strong throughout her tenure in law school.

She has demonstrated remarkable empathy for individuals who are incarcerated – who arguably represent the most overlooked population in any community.

Fatima advocated on behalf of death row inmates through a co-op placement with the Federal Defender’s Capital Habeas Unit, an experience that she said profoundly enriched her legal education.

“Putting a face to the name and a personality to the crime really transforms your perspective on what you think of a person who committed a crime. It humanizes them,” she said. “People have a tendency to not humanize clients. Sometimes someone really is a victim of circumstance. That doesn’t really get talked about a lot. You don’t think about what drew that person to commit that crime or if poverty played a role. Most people who are on death row are poor.”

Through her co-op placement, Agosto met with inmates on death row, conducted research and helped draft petitions for habeas review to obtain a new trial or a new penalty phase. Her overall performance in the Habeas Unit was rated “exceptional,” according to David Zuckerman, the attorney who supervised her work, noting the strength of her research and writing skills, her creativity in approaching tasks and her sensitivity to the needs of clients and her colleagues alike.  

Agosto was also among 14 Kline students who took a Crime and Justice course that was taught in 2018 through the Inside-Out Exchange program at the Federal Detention Center in Philadelphia, where the class consisted of both law students and inmates. She connected personally with some of the classmates who live behind bars, contending that the differences between herself and these women are not great and that she easily could imagine herself in their shoes.

She exceeded the law school’s 50-hour Pro Bono Service requirement, volunteering with the Pennsylvania Innocence Project, the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office and the Federal Defender Habeas Unit (in excess of the hours for which she earned academic credit there in her co-op placement).

The president of the Latin American Law Student Association, she leads one of the most active student organizations at the law school. In this capacity, she’s collaborated with classmates as well as staff to organize a number of events, most recently a panel discussion on “The Criminalization of the Latinx Body,” which featured immigration attorneys, activists and the head consul of the Consulate of Mexico in Philadelphia. She worked with other student leaders to organize a Diversity Alumni Panel where six accomplished alums discussed the career pathways they have followed in the public and private sectors. For her (upcoming) final semester in law school, Fatima hopes to step up LALSA’s activity even more, contending there is more the organization could be doing and more opportunities for students to engage with diversity initiatives.

Agosto has also been instrumental in working with administrative staff and faculty to ensure that accelerated students get the support they need in the relatively brief timeframe that they are here. Serving on a committee tasked with assessing and improving the experiences of AJD students, she’s provided suggestions, such as adjusting the timetables for career counseling and aligning our Co-op program to accommodate the cohort’s distinct scheduling needs. While law students can sometimes be demanding (and the Kline School of Law does a great job of training them to argue), she is unfailingly constructive, working with staff and faculty to modify law school procedures to accommodate the distinct needs of accelerated students.

“It’s unanimous: Fatima is a rising star,” said Professor Tracye Edwards, who has taught the Lawyering Practice Seminar that students complete in tandem with their co-op placements for more than a decade.