PUBLISHED:May 04, 2009

Eric Eisenberg '09

It would be an understatement to say that affable Eric Eisenberg made the most of his time at the Law School. Recently recognized for reporting the most pro bono hours of any student in the 2008-2009 school year, Eisenberg served as student director of the Innocence Project and worked with the executive board of the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program.

In the course of his Duke Law career, he has also served on the boards of Moot Court and the Duke Law Journal, as a research assistant to former Professor Catherine Fisk, and as a pro bono intern for the North Carolina Gay and Lesbian Attorneys Institute for Equal Rights.

“I’ve been a student my whole life, and I guess I got to be good at it through years of experience,” Eisenberg says, laughing.

Eisenberg has spent summers interning for Judge Allyson K. Duncan ’75 on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, and for the domestic violence misdemeanor team in the Mecklenburg County District Attorney’s Office in his hometown of Charlotte.

He makes a direct connection between his work with the Innocence Project, where investigators drop cases if the actual innocence of the defendant seems unlikely, and his stint in the prosecutor’s office.

“Prosecutors have discretion — if you think someone isn’t guilty, you can stop prosecuting them,” he says. “You get to make the ultimate decision. I like that idea, it’s a commitment to truth that’s in common with the Innocence Project, and a luxury that defense attorneys really don’t have.”

A theater and linguistics major at Swarthmore College, Eisenberg admits to feeling pulled in many directions, professionally. He’s considering a range of options, from becoming a prosecutor to working on policy in a legislative or think-tank setting.

“I think people who know me can see me in a think tank, mainly because I’m kind of a cerebral person, with very few practical skills,” he says, laughing again.

After clerking with Washington State Supreme Court Justice Debra Stephens after graduation, Eisenberg thinks he’ll likely enter an area of practice related to criminal law.

“That’s really bizarre, because when I came here I didn’t think I was going to like criminal law,” he says. “Now I’ve taken every course with ‘criminal’ in the title. I guess I thought I would be squeamish about criminal law — I thought trials were theatrical things that were more about gamesmanship than the truth, and that made me especially wary about criminal law, where the stakes are so high.” He changed his mind after having Charles L.B. Lowndes Professor of Law Sara Sun Beale for Criminal Law in his first year.

“I just enjoyed it so much and I realized it was for me. I thought the questions involved, the moral questions, were very difficult, and I liked hearing what people had to say about them, because the questions were hard and there were lots of right answers,” he says. “That was when I got interested in the Innocence Project.”

Taking two classes and an ad hoc seminar with Robert P. Mosteller, the Harry R. Chadwick, Sr. Professor of Law, in his second year further cemented Eisenberg’s interest in criminal law.

Eisenberg notes that his criminal law studies, and his work with the Innocence Project and the D.A.’s office combined to make him “less cynical” about the justice system than he had previously been.

“It might be that I learned that the system is necessarily addressing hard questions, and once I saw that it was trying to get at the right things, I was able to forgive it its flaws.”

But while his faith in the legal system may be high, his experience assisting domestic violence prosecutors in Charlotte left its mark in another way.

“I’d get off work and walk from the prosecutor’s office to the train station, and if I saw people in a car who looked like they might be arguing, or if I saw a blur of motion behind a window, I started thinking ‘Is that someone getting hurt? Is he beating her up?’” he says. “Being it around it everyday made me see it everywhere.”

Ultimately, Eisenberg says he wants to follow a career path that has something in common with much of his pro bono work at the Law School: “I want to do work that has an immediate, practical impact for people.”