Practicing law by leading with compassion
Editor's note: This story is part of a series of profiles of notable spring 2022 graduates.
Born and raised in Arizona, Ashlyn Saenz-Ochoa was naturally drawn to ASU when she decided to pursue her undergraduate degrees. The Peoria resident double-majored in political science and history.
The Teach for America program led her to Las Vegas, and after a few years working for the Department of Defense, her Sun Devil roots brought her back to Arizona where she enrolled at the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law to pursue her Juris Doctor.
Arizona brought Saenz-Ochoa closer to her family but also to the many experiential opportunities ASU Law offers.
While at ASU Law, Saenz-Ochoa had the opportunity to work with Judge Diane J. Humetewa at the United States District Court for the District of Arizona.
“I remember walking into the courthouse and seeing the beautiful emblem in the courtroom and feeling such awe and gratitude for being there,” she said.
Saenz-Ochoa also interned with the Arizona Federal Public Defender’s Office, further solidifying her passion for public defense, specifically federal public defense.
Through the ASU Law 3L Residency Externship Program, she’s working with the Karina Ordonez Law Office, PLLC, gaining extensive experience and confidence as an advocate.
Her advocacy work goes beyond the classroom. Saenz-Ochoa has been the Youth Development Chair for the Chicano Latino Law Student Association (CLLSA) for the past two years. Through that role and with a committee, she provides monthly seminars to high school students at Aguila Youth Leadership Institute.
Saenz-Ochoa encourages and guides students who are interested in a legal career.
“This role is something that has truly brought me much fulfillment to serve the youth in this program,” she said.
Additionally, Saenz-Ochoa was part of the ASU Law chapter of the Mindfulness in Law Society as a student, and most recently became the organization’s president. To share more about her ASU Law experience and what she hopes to accomplish next, we spoke to Saenz-Ochoa.
Question: What was your “aha” moment when you realized what field you wanted to study?
Answer: I took a “Find your Career” quiz my freshman year in high school and it had “lawyer” listed. It had a pull-down menu that listed all the different kinds of lawyers, and I saw “immigration lawyer.”
My father and extended family on my father’s side are immigrants from Mexico. This was always a sense of pride for me growing up, but also a sense of stress and struggle. Discovering that there was a lawyer who helped others find better opportunities here in the United States, like my family did, felt full of purpose and service.
Going into law school, you do not need to choose a major or specific field of interest, but I found myself naturally choosing classes that taught topics of criminal justice and public defense. Through this experience, I have found that my passions lie in criminal public defense and immigration.
Due to the nature of our immigration laws and the functioning of our criminal justice system, the two often converge. This is a term that some call “crimmigration.” I have been given many opportunities in my life, and I intend on using my education to be of service to others. I believe strongly that humanity is necessary in law, and I will dedicate my career to further that basic belief.
Q: What’s something you learned while at ASU Law — in the classroom or otherwise — that surprised you or changed your perspective?
A: I learned about how close I was to missing out on who I was meant to be. I have re-learned and retraced the steps that little Ashlyn dreamed of. I have pulled my old dreams, my old hopes, and all my convictions back from the darkness of what I thought society wanted of me, what my culture wanted of me, and what others wanted of me. I have learned to set boundaries, learned how to heal, and learned how to keep on learning. I’ll always be learning, because to me, the law is about humans because it affects humans. And as humans, we must all seek to do this work with compassion. And compassion is a practice that must be continuous and relentless.
Q: Why did you choose ASU Law?
A: ASU Law chose me, and it was meant to be. I was working full time while in the process of applying for law school. I was also going through much in my personal life, so deadlines for applications came sooner than expected. I had planned on only applying to one law school that was in line with where I thought I might be moving to, for other reasons. I remember applying after hours at work in my office and deciding at that moment to apply to ASU Law. I was aware that ASU Law was ranked higher than the other school I was applying to, but something told me to apply anyway. So I did. I ended up getting a call on a cold February morning congratulating me on getting accepted into ASU Law. I cried and then immediately called my mom. I knew that this was meant for me and that it would also change the course of my life in many ways. Getting accepted into ASU Law was a catalyst for change in my life; a catalyst for realigning my path to be true to me.
Q: Which professor taught you the most important lesson while at ASU?
A: There have been many professors and mentors who have taught me one important lesson. Do not be afraid to ask for help. Do not be embarrassed to ask for help. Do not hesitate in asking if there are other options, and always speak with forthrightness about what you are dealing with. I would not be where I am right now or have had the opportunities I have had without the support and mentorship within the legal community.
Q: What’s the best piece of advice you’d give to those still in school?
A: You are more than your worst grade and you are more than your best grade. You as an individual have so many amazing and interesting aspects to yourself, and any missed assignment, missed opportunity or denied internship does not outweigh all the hard work you have done so far. You are here, right now; revel in that fact. You made it this far amidst all the challenges, and at the end of the day, you are you, and that is a beautiful thing.
Q: What advice do you have for students who may be interested in pursuing a law degree?
A: My advice is specifically for those who are first-generation, non-traditional or diverse students. Your presence in law school will be in direct defiance of the efforts of many for decades. There are still residual effects of those times, and you will feel it when you read the cases in your casebook. You will feel it when you hear some of your peers answer questions in certain ways. It will be heavy at times, and it will feel expensive a lot of the time. But don’t forget that you being there in that classroom, learning the law, alongside others is revolutionary. Speak your truth, stay authentic to your story, and find joy in the fact that you are there in spite of all the challenges or setbacks.
Q: What are your plans after graduation?
A: Two words: bar prep.
Q: If someone gave you $40 million to solve one problem on our planet, what would you tackle?
A: I would use that money to try and give as many children an early childhood education (as possible). I believe strongly that early childhood education helps children to develop their social-emotional and cognitive skills. I also believe that for children who are learning English as a second language, children who are dealing with trauma or poverty, that early childhood education helps to provide a more equal education. I was a child who attended Head Start, and I remember the red nails and yellow jeep of my teacher, the baby beluga songs we would sing, but also learning to love learning. It left an impression on me that I still remember to this day. I would want to provide that for as many children as possible.