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Pulitzer Prize-Winner Molly O’Toole Leads Media Training for Legal Clinic Students

Attorneys in practice often seek to engage the public using the media to advance their client’s interests. On November 10, 2021, attorneys-in-training from Cornell Law School’s legal clinics participated in a unique session on the skills and strategic considerations involved in doing so, hosted by the new Transnational Disputes Clinic. Cornell Distinguished Visiting Journalist and Pulitzer-Prize winner, Molly O’Toole, B.S. ’09, led the session. 

In the two-hour training, clinic students were able to dissect the benefits that powerful public storytelling can have on their clients and the outcome of their cases, as well as some of the risks. O’Toole is currently on leave from reporting on national security and immigration for the Los Angeles Times and has reported for a number of other prominent media outlets. The training also featured remarks by Austin Kocher, research associate professor at Syracuse University’s Newhouse School of Public Communications and the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, a leading source of data on a range of issues related to the U.S. immigration system. 

The training provided students with advice about how to land a media pitch. O’Toole urged students to be proactive and creative, calibrating their media work to reporters whose work could advance a client’s interests. Kocher urged outreach to local and regional media outlets and not just national or international media. 

Much of the discussion revolved around the complex considerations of attorney-client privilege and strategy that informed when and how to contact the press. Cornell Law student Amber Pirson described taking an important lesson away from the discussion: 

“If you foresee yourself framing a narrative to a journalist in such a way that your client’s confidentiality would be sacrificed,” Pirson said, “go back to the drawing board and think of another way in which you can present the root of their legal issue without undermining their peace of mind or the attorney-client relationship.” 

O’Toole and Kocher urged future attorneys to think about the role of their client in the narrative they were pitching to the media. Did their client’s story highlight a gap in immigration law that renders them and many more migrants vulnerable? If so, students might center their client in their media pitch and seek coverage to produce momentum for their client and the migrants’ rights movement.

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