NCAJ Member Spotlight
This space is designed to help members learn more about their fellow advocates and to recognize current and future NCAJ leaders. If you would like to nominate someone, please contact email@example.com.
Sonya Pfeiffer currently chairs NCAJ's Criminal Defense Section and also serves as NCAJ’s Membership Vice President on the NCAJ Executive Committee. She began her legal career in the Mecklenburg County Public Defender’s Office, where she served in both the Misdemeanor and Felony Drug Unit. She joined Rudolf Widenhouse after working in the business litigation division of Womble, Carlyle, Sandridge and Rice, where she was involved with both civil and criminal cases. In addition to her legal experience, Sonya Pfeiffer is an award-winning journalist and documentary filmmaker.
What area of law do you practice and what attracted you to that area of law?
I am a criminal defense attorney and represent people charged with state and federal crimes. I also work on civil rights cases related to wrongful convictions, and I focus most of my pro bono work on civil rights cases: I was involved in the Racial Justice Act litigation and I am currently representing two declarants in the federal government’s HB2 suit against North Carolina. I became a lawyer almost unexpectedly, but criminal defense and civil rights were obvious fits for me once I decided to practice law. For more than a decade I was a television reporter and anchor, but I became disillusioned with what was happening in local television news - a lack of focus on quality content, and an increasing fixation on sensationalism. I thought that getting a law degree would enable me to specialize and do more in-depth, investigative reporting. Once I was accepted and enrolled at UNC Chapel Hill School of Law, however, I became involved with the public defender mentor project, the innocence project organization and the criminal clinic, through which I represented indigent kids in juvenile court. I quickly realized there was a way to tell stories that made a real difference, and that was in the courtroom speaking on behalf of those who are marginalized too frequently.
What career accomplishments are you most proud of?
When I was a public defender, in my first year of practice, I represented a man who had a history of minor misdemeanor convictions like intoxicated and disruptive and simple marijuana possession, but nothing violent. In my case, he was in jail on a misdemeanor assault charge and could not make his $500 bond. My client was about 60 years old, tall and frail-looking, with a weathered face that showed every difficulty he had lived through. He was accused of assaulting a convenience store clerk, unprovoked, by hitting the clerk, after which he allegedly tried to run away but was held by a passerby. During my first jail visit, my client, who spoke with a speech impediment that caused some slurring, was adamant that the charge was made up, and that it was he who had been assaulted – by being hit with a metal trashcan! He begged me to get the store videotape so we could prove his innocence. I was skeptical. Nonetheless, I subpoenaed the tape and watched four and half hours of jerking surveillance video – both inside and outside the store - until I came to the alleged incident. I was shocked. I have no idea what the back story was between my client and the store clerk, but what happened on this day was not what the warrant alleged. My client walked to the convenience store in broad daylight from across a busy street. He walked into the store. As soon as my client walked in, the clerk came out from behind the register and grabbed my client, then shoved him out the door. The clerk rammed my client onto the ground, put a foot on his leg, grabbed a big, round metal trashcan and whacked my client on the back and head with it. The clerk and a passerby held him there until two cop cars showed up. My client was roughly handcuffed, then literally hauled into the patrol car and taken down to the magistrate. Wow. I immediately went to the DA’s office, showed the videotape, got a handwritten dismissal, made several copies, then went to the jail so my client could be released. He wept. So did I.
What do you value most about your NCAJ membership?
The value of having supportive, encouraging colleagues who lift you up when you are down, who assist in every way when you are in a bind of any sort, and who intimately understand how it feels to fight Goliath, is truly immeasurable.
When you’re not working, how do you like to spend your time?
I love to travel, because I think it is critical to having understanding and compassion. I love to bike, run, swim and throw weights around at the gym. I meditate and practice yoga regularly – even if it’s just a few minutes a day. I really enjoy a bone dry, well-shaken vodka martini. And, of course, I love any downtime I get with my family, particularly if it involves baking something chocolate. Or chocolate and peanut butter.
What do you want to see changed in the practice of law today?
I would like to see changes in the way law schools educate, with more of an emphasis on the actual practice of law. Rather than 3 years of classroom work, I would like to see classroom work compressed into one year, with two years of apprenticeship. We all know that nothing compares to practical experience – even the best CLEs for the longest-practicing lawyers are the ones involving mock casework.
What’s the best career advice you've received or offered?Never be afraid to say “I don’t know. But then go figure out the answer.”
If you could spend the day with one celebrity or historical figure, who would you spend time with and why?
I would spend a day with Michelle Obama and I’d make sure we were up at the crack of dawn to get an early morning workout in together, after which I would try to just let her talk so I could take in all of her magnificence. Michelle Obama is a model of grace, strength and intelligence. She has given the world a breathtaking example of how to meet adversity with ease and elegance, how to speak passionately and use your own voice to effect change, and how to embrace the challenges of balancing work, family and self. I hold her up as an extraordinary role model and am grateful she has given so much of herself so that we can all point to her and say to the children in this country: “Look. Just look at how you can live a life of meaning, and how you can use your power to sow kindness, caring and compassion.” She is an endless source of inspiration.
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