Prof. Fallon Speaker comes to Richmond Law from New York, where she was a staff attorney at The Bronx Defenders and director of the Mainzer Family Defense Clinic at the Cardozo School of Law. We sat down with Prof. Speaker to learn more about her passion for family law and hear about her vision for the Jeanette Lipman Family Law Clinic.

How did you know that you wanted to go to law school?
I am both a first-generation college student and a first-generation law student. My parents worked very hard to make sure that I was able to receive a good education. Oftentimes that meant they would have to work two or three jobs. My mom didn't actually complete her degree until after I had graduated from law school. It was not that education was not important to my parents, it was just that they had to make sacrifices to raise a family.
I knew that I was presented with an opportunity by my parents to receive a good education and to get a job that would allow me to have a career, not just something that was paycheck-to-paycheck. It was very important for me to achieve that for my family. That is the reason why I went to law school, because I knew that ultimately when I graduated from law school I would have a career, not just a job. I could choose the pathway that I wanted to take and I could do the work that was important to me. I could decide to go into corporate law or I could decide to work with communities and families, like the ones I came from. I could also motivate other people who make the journey from similar backgrounds to achieve a career in the law or another professional degree. I wanted to end a cycle of generational poverty, and that is the reason I went to law school.
Can you describe your career path?
When I was in law school, I didn't know what area of the law I wanted to practice, but I knew I wanted to do family law. I was advised by my Career Services Office to work at a public defender's office or in some form of public interest law to get the most litigation experience. I received offers from a number of public defender and public interest offices. In reviewing the offers with my juvenile justice clinical professor, she highly recommended the Bronx Defenders because she felt I could learn to be a more zealous defender via their holistic model of advocacy. I followed her advice and completed my internship during my 2L summer at the Bronx Defenders in their Family Defense Practice. Indeed, I learned how to litigate that summer. But more importantly, I think that was my first impression of what it felt like to be a community-engaged lawyer.
I was very impressed by the Bronx Defenders, which led me to apply for a staff attorney position. I felt like that would be a great opportunity for me because the position was going to be in the Family Defense Practice, allowing me to learn civil procedure and to work in family law, but it was specifically going to focus on issues of child welfare. The reason why this was important to me, as opposed to another practice area, is because child welfare law is cutting edge. The law was substantive depending on where you were located and it was subjective based on who all was involved, from the judge to the prosecutor to the child welfare officials knocking on your client’s door. I felt like we were at a place where we could really define the practice, policy, and the law, and I wanted to be a part of that innovation.
After completing my summer internship, I applied for a staff attorney position and was invited to join the 2013 Training Team at the Bronx Defenders, where I served as a staff attorney for six years. I worked in the Family Defense Practice with parents or caretakers who were accused of abuse or neglect. During my time at the Bronx Defenders, I served as a mentor and conducted skills-based trainings for new attorneys, and served on the hiring committee for new and lateral attorneys. I became a Team Leader in my fourth year of practice, where I was charged with co-leading an interdisciplinary team of 50+ attorneys, social workers, parent advocates, legal advocates, investigators, and team administrators.
This leadership opportunity helped me to understand the complexities of managing a large team and budget as well as improve upon my holistic advocacy skills. In my last couple of years at the Bronx Defenders I started to expand my defense work out of the courtroom and into the community by working in coalition with a number of organizations and colleagues from my office on an array of policy initiatives that include parent defense, child welfare reform, prison reform, re-entry work, alternatives to detention, and arrest procedure and use of force reform. I also accepted a position from 2017-2019 as an adjunct professor in Gertrud Mainzer Family Defense Clinic at the Cardozo School of Law, where I taught a seminar on the theory and practice of child welfare law and supervised students each semester in legal work in the Bronx Defenders Family Defense Practice as well as in Administrative Hearings at the Office of Children and Family Services.
Why Richmond Law?
In my time as a public defender and policy analyst, my work has allowed me to travel nationally to present at different conferences and study in different judicial systems across various states. What I have seen routinely is that, in many states, the rights of parents tend to be truncated. In many systems they seem to barely exist. In those systems, there tends to be a high number of removals that result in lengthy foster care stays, custodial placement with a non-parent, placement of children with non-kinship foster parents, and a high number of parental right terminations. One of the largest challenges that stands out to me is a lack of resources for both parents and children in many states – including in Virginia.
The second challenge is in representation for both parents and children. Oftentimes, children are represented by a panel of lay persons or attorneys via a guardian ad litem program that is guided by a highly subjective approach to representation – creating a system which can allow for bias via race, class, and privilege to be inserted into the decision-making process. Additionally, if they are represented at all, parents are often represented by attorneys who are not trained in holistic defense, who lack the proper pay or motivation to provide adequate, effective, or zealous advocacy, and most troubling, who often believe the people they are representing are actually bad people.
As such, I immediately envisioned serving as the Director of the Family Law Clinic as an opportunity to implement a holistic and interdisciplinary model of representation to address family reunification and parent defense work in Virginia. My hope in coming to Richmond Law, after studying a little bit about what was happening in the child welfare system here and with my own knowledge of how the child welfare system works, is that I can implement a holistic defense model here that, if successful, will result in a decrease in length of foster care stays for children separated from parents, quicker safe reunifications between families, increased education and awareness around the collateral consequences of child welfare involvement, and more collaborative work with community providers to implement preventative measures that will ultimately help end the generational poverty and the child welfare loop that marginalized communities experience.
How do you maintain your mental health and wellness in this profession?
There are a few practices that ground me. The first way is that I maintain my spiritual grounding. It’s important for me to be able to meditate and to maintain my spirituality. A large part of this work for me is driven by my faith and belief that this is my calling – to be a social justice advocate.
The second way is to be grounded in my mental health. I do that by going to a therapist. I think that is something that people shy away from in general in this work, but the work that I do is heavy. I take home some of the hardest things that people deal with in their families. I take home some of the harshest injustices that people suffer in the legal system. I have to have an outlet to release it. Coming from a very marginalized family myself, I also have those familial traumas that I have to deal with personally which are often compounded by work trauma. So to create balance, I have to set personal boundaries and I go to therapy.
Lastly, I try to take care of myself physically. That means being cognizant of my physical health, including my diet. I find joy in cooking healthy meals, but also in occasionally enjoying things that I like to eat. I also find a lot of joy in running, going to different classes at the gym, and a social community that's really into being healthy and living a healthy lifestyle. Those things are very important for my mental health and help to keep me grounded and balanced.

Interview conducted by Alexandria Brown.