As a kid, Jami Cornish watched Matlock, Law & Order, and other crime shows on television, and knew she wanted to be a lawyer, specifically a prosecutor, who put away the criminals. She would joke with a family friend who was a defense lawyer and remains a mentor that, one day, she would face off with her in a courtroom.
It was a big dream for a girl whose father dropped out of high school at 16 and whose mom married him at 17. But with her parents’ successful business in surplus electronics, and years of saving, they were able to help send her to college where she earned her bachelor’s degree in justice studies and master’s degree in criminal justice, both at Arizona State University, and then send her to law school in San Francisco.
Today, Cornish is married, with a stepdaughter who is a senior in high school and a 2-year-old son, and she is the new Supervising Attorney at the College of Law’s Diane Halle Center for Family Justice and Ruth McGregor Family Protection Clinic. This semester, she is co-teaching with Sarah Buel, Founding Director of the Center.
“We are thrilled to add someone with the practical skill and personal passion that Jami possesses,” said Dean Douglas Sylvester. “She adds a significant amount of flexibility and expertise to our staffing at the Halle Center and will make a real difference in the lives of victims of domestic violence.”
Cornish’s interest in domestic violence began in an undergraduate class taught by Madelaine Adelman, a professor in Justice and Social Inquiry at ASU’s School of Social Transformation.
“It was an eye-opener and the issue of domestic violence became a passion of mine,” Cornish said. She started volunteering at domestic shelters and the Phoenix Family Advocacy Center.
Cornish was heading toward a career as a prosecutor when, working on her master’s thesis, she changed direction.
“My thesis was on the issue of child custody in domestic violence cases, and I realized the big impact these issues had nationally and locally,” she said. “I knew that was where I needed to focus my efforts.”
In law school, Cornish applied for an Equal Justice Works (formerly National Association of Public Interest Lawyers) fellowship and received one of only 50 given across the country. Sponsored by Greenberg Traurig, LLP, the fellowship funded a two-year project Cornish proposed and carried out at Community Legal Services. Cornish worked there for more than five years as a Senior Staff Attorney providing pro bono direct representation, legal advice and document preparation to a diverse population of domestic violence victims, parents of abused children and other low-income individuals in family court.
Cornish said she enjoyed working at Community Legal Services, but the agency provides only legal assistance, and domestic violence was only one aspect of its work.
“I’m excited about the Halle Center because it offers holistic services and caters to a specific population,” Cornish said. “We help survivors through economic empowerment programs, support groups, and other social services, and we represent victims of child sex abuse trafficking in various legal matters.”
Cornish began following the work of the Halle Center when Buel arrived.
“I was quite familiar with her name from my undergraduate and graduate studies and, even as a lawyer, I continued to read her articles,” Cornish said. The opportunity to work with Buel was the greatest contributing factor to her decision to join the Halle Center, Cornish said.
She was also intrigued by the Halle Center’s umbrella approach to helping victims, bringing together different agencies to collaborate and provide holistic services in a “one-stop shop.”
“It’s so difficult for a single, broke mother to take the bus from place to place for help, especially with her children in tow,” she said.
Cornish is most excited about the fact that the Halle Center exclusively works with survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault, and that every staff member is passionate about the same issues.
“At Community Legal Services, everyone had a different field, from housing to farm work,” Cornish said. “Here, everything is focused on domestic violence. I’m excited to talk about every case, and so are the law students and our volunteers.
“Everyone at the Halle Center, including the interns and externs, work many more hours than necessary because they are truly dedicated to the cause. It’s inspiring, to say the least.”