Name: Chris Lang
Title and Organization: Client Services/Sentencing Mitigation & Audiovisual Specialist, Wisconsin State Public Defender
Graduation Year and Degree: 2001 MA in Journalism
Many J-School alums go into the legal field, but for Chris Lang (MA’01), his career at the Wisconsin State Public Defender has taken a unique path, and earned him a Wisconsin Legal Innovators award from the State Bar of Wisconsin. In his role as a video mitigation specialist, he films defendants and people close to them, talking about their backstories in order to humanize defendants in the eyes of judges and jurors. We caught up with Chris to hear more about this award and his career.
When it comes to this award, what are you most proud of?
At the state public defender, I work with a fantastic team of professional defense attorneys and other staff who consistently strive for equitable outcomes for our clients, each of whom would not ordinarily be able to afford an attorney. Although I am not a lawyer by training, I am happy to be able to contribute my skills as a journalist and media producer to humanize our clients in the eyes of the court. Once the case is determined, our clients and their families generally appreciate the opportunity to be heard, despite what may happen with their case. That is hugely satisfying.
What’s the best advice you have for a J-School student who wants to do what you do?
Keep an open mind. Many of our clients come from an array of backgrounds and experiences, so it’s very important to be able to listen to their stories from a place of non-judgement and compassion. I approach each interview as if I were a member of the jury, or member of the public who may read about the case in the news. What would I want to know to make a fair judgement?
Be curious. When you demonstrate genuine curiosity toward a client, they tend to relate to you more comfortably. Ask the question…even if it makes you somewhat uncomfortable. You’ll be surprised what you find out.
Maintain an air of neutrality. Since these biographical videos eventually become court records, I get the information across without unnecessary editorialization. I never want to insert myself into the story. My sole interest is in telling the client’s story as neutrally as possible; only through interviews do I determine the direction of the story.
When we say “J-School,” what do you think of?
I suppose the fact that J-School is pretty renowned in the academic world. Although my program was considered the “professional track”, it was still very heavy on abstract theory. My interest in doing something for the greater good was more intrinsic, rather than catalyzed by my participation in the program.