“I’ve represented individuals on a state and federal level in charges ranging from a DWI to murder. Late last year, a jury acquitted my client of attempted murder and aggravated assault,” says Michael Rosas ’05, a criminal defense attorney who started his own law firm ten years ago. “My goal is to make sure my clients are given a fair trial, that the charges they’re facing are appropriate, and if they’re innocent, to win their freedom.”
Why John Jay?
My experiences following the September 11th attacks led me to John Jay. In 2001, I was on a full-ride scholarship for engineering at New York University (NYU) Polytechnic. Every morning, I would take an express bus from my home on Staten Island into Manhattan. Following the attacks, security checks were performed at the Verrazano Bridge. One morning, my bus driver pulled over and alerted the National Guard that a “suspicious person” was on the bus, and he pointed to “the guy with the long hair and beard.” That guy he was pointing to was me. I had faced discrimination in the past. In Staten Island, I was one of three Hispanics in my neighborhood, so I had had some negative experiences with officers who singled me out, but this affected me differently. Sitting on that bus, I realized I couldn’t be an engineer; I had to do something else that was going to help people. I became passionate about getting involved in the criminal justice system and advocating for others. I knew John Jay was where I could get the best education to enter that world.
Were there any mentors at the College who helped put you on the path to success?
Dr. Jodie Roure set me up for success at John Jay and in my post-graduate life. She ensured I was taking the right courses at the College, preparing for the LSAT, and expanding my network by interning and meeting people in the legal field. When choosing a post-graduate path, she suggested colleges and universities for me to look into for my J.D. She guided me through the application process for Rutgers and was an amazing sounding board whenever I had questions or expressed concerns.
How has your John Jay education helped you as a criminal defense attorney?
At John Jay, it went beyond just book learning. As a student, I was being taught by experts in the field—professors who were practicing lawyers and working in law enforcement. It gave me a practical view of the field. I gained a deeper understanding of the work and an appreciation to never lose my humanity while practicing the law. The professors at John Jay were always very approachable, so that’s what I try to be with my clients.
Latinos make up about six percent of lawyers in the legal profession in the U.S. What are some of the advantages and challenges of being a Hispanic attorney?
In the area in New Jersey where I practice, there are only two Hispanic defense lawyers. So, I find that when I get a Hispanic or minority client, they feel comfortable with me. That’s a definite advantage because I’m better able to connect with clients. When your client’s freedom and life are on the line, you want them to feel comfortable with you because you want them to talk openly and honestly.
As for the challenges, it can be tough to be seen as a true equal, whether at a firm or in the court. I have had judges ask me if I was an interpreter or the defendant in the case. There are also certain counties where I won’t take a case because I don’t feel comfortable going to trial there. But with all that said, I love the work I do and the profession I’m in.
What is your most memorable client/court experience?
I remember about 97 percent of them, but in terms of emotionally happy memories, it’s always the cases where you can give a client his life back. I had a federal court case, and my client anticipated that he was going to prison. What made the situation especially moving was that his mom was dying, and he was afraid he’d be away in prison and unable to say goodbye to her. We made our arguments and presentations in court, and he got probation. After the verdict, his mom approached me and hugged me. She thanked me for giving her more time with her son.
What advice do you have for John Jay students hoping to pursue a legal career?
Regardless of your obstacles, never give up on your dream of being a lawyer. Remember, we represent real people, so be a real person with your clients and talk to them in a way they can comprehend what’s happening. Operate with the knowledge that people aren’t inherently evil; sometimes, they just make mistakes.