Published on July 28, 2021 by Morgan Black
After growing up with trials and tribulations, Cumberland School of Law third-year law student Antionette Pruitt knew she was made to be a trial lawyer. Through her experience in Cumberland's nationally recognized trial advocacy program, and after receiving the Richard D. Hailey Law Student Scholarship from the American Association of Justice’s (AAJ) Minority Caucus, she’s prepared to make her dream a reality.
When she was still in the womb, Pruitt’s father was sentenced to 30 years in federal prison. “Most students have the luxury of studying the law in a theoretical way,” she said. “The facts they read may be disturbing or difficult, but they are distant and impersonal. That is not the case for me. Because of my father’s absence my siblings and I lived through instances of abuse and neglect that most people only hear about secondhand.”
She grew up with five siblings, no father, and a mother who worked long hours as a janitor. To Pruitt, graduating from high school seemed impossible and going to college wasn’t even on her radar.
She said, “I remember watching television shows and pointing at the lawyers and telling myself, ‘I want to be that person.’ I knew the journey would be rough, but I have never wavered.”
At 19 years old, Pruitt became a Guardian Ad Litem (GAL) volunteer after learning that very few juvenile case workers and volunteers were African Americans, despite serving in a majority African American/Latinx community. As a GAL, she advocated on behalf of abused and neglected children that reminded her of herself and her siblings.
Today, Pruitt is a nontraditional Cumberland School of Law student—she is a single mother and a first-generation college student with a unique perspective on our existing legal system. She is a member of Cumberland’s national trial team, an experience that is preparing her to reach her dream of becoming a trial attorney. To date, she has participated in five competitions in which she has advanced to the semifinals in three of those five. In February 2021, she and her fellow team members won the regional round of the National Trial Competition while advocating on both sides of the case. And, at the end of the 2020-21 competition season, Pruitt was recognized as the Most Outstanding 2L Advocate.
“Every competition has brought me one step closer by empowering me to be confident in my advocacy skills, by incorporating my own experiences and embracing my authentic self, so that I can seek justice for my future clients,” she said. “Trial advocacy has confirmed what I knew as a kid; that I was born for this career. My experience being a member of Cumberland’s trial advocacy program has given me a glimpse into what it is like to advocate for clients who have dealt with trauma and have also been a victim of injustice. The skills I have learned while participating in the trial advocacy program have helped me in every aspect of my life.”
In addition to the experience she is receiving through the advocacy program, Pruitt received a life-changing scholarship to help her complete her law degree. While attending the AAJ’s 2021 summer convention in Las Vegas, Nevada, alongside Cumberland School of Law trial team coach Sara Williams ’06, Pruitt was awarded the Richard D. Hailey Law Student Scholarship.
This scholarship will allow her to continue to pursue her dream of becoming a trial attorney and will ensure she finishes her final year at Cumberland. “Receiving this scholarship from AAJ during the toughest season of my law school journey reassured me that not only do I belong here, but I have an entire organization that is cheering me on,” she said.