Over the past decade, several Latin American countries have reformed their criminal justice systems. These reforms have entailed vast institutional changes including the installation of new public agencies, such as the National Public Defender’s and the National Prosecutor’s Offices. Reforms of this type represent the most profound transformation that Latin American criminal justice systems have undergone in nearly two centuries (Hilbink, 2007; Langer, 2007). Significantly, these agencies require a critical mass of criminal justice professionals who are committed to ensuring these new criminal justice institutions endure and succeed over time.

Scholars of penal change have established a rich theoretical understanding of the social, political, and historical forces that explain the advancement of penal projects – such as legal reforms and the establishment of new institutional capacities (Garland, 2013). Comparative empirical studies address how nation-specific arrangements – such as electoral and party systems, bureaucratic structures, and mechanisms of knowledge production – explain the configuration of penal systems across societies (Lacey, 2008; Lappi-Seppälä, 2011; Savelsberg, 1994; Tonry, 2009). Sociolegal studies have also begun to explore the contingent political struggles that take place in local policy sites to explain the shape and scope of penal institutions in specific times and places (Goodman et al., 2017; Loader & Sparks, 2004: 16; Page, 2012; Rubin, 2015). While these macro- and meso- approaches have proven fundamental for understanding the emergence, diffusion, and success of penal projects, similarly enthusiastic examinations of the agentic aspects of professional commitment to criminal justice institutions are necessary to better understand the relationship between individual agency and the success and endurance of penal change. Large-scale social phenomena matter in the configuration and development of penal systems; however, “people make them matter in particular ways” (Goodman et al., 2017: 123 − 24).

Penal scholars have used different micro-level individual approaches to explore the ways in which criminal justice professionals and penal practitioners – lawyers, social workers, judges, educators, parole agents, correctional officers – join, remain committed, or abandon penal projects. Sociolegal studies in cause lawyering and indigent criminal defense have been particularly prolific in this regard. Research on law students and lawyers provide different co-occurring individual-level explanations of attorneys’ preferences to work as criminal defense lawyers, including altruistic personality traits, the allure of the material benefits involved in legal practice, and the individual’s position in the social structure (Baćak et al., 2020; Curran & Noone, 2007: 78, Emmelman, 1993; Etienne, 2004; McIntyre, 1987, Menkel-Meadow, 1998). Whereas traditional approaches rely on personal qualities, rational calculations, and structural explanations of professional commitment, alternative theories suggest paying attention to the complex agentic aspects of professional identity construction. Researchers in adjacent fields of study –such as social psychology, administrative sciences, organizational studies, and narrative criminology– have begun to pay attention to the ways in which individuals themselves engage in self-defining processes of professional identity construction. The narrative study of lives has contributed greatly to the understanding of how professionals find sense and meaning from interpreting life events in their biographies as the basis for their professional engagement to organizations and institutions (McAdams et al., 1997; Bloom et al., 2021; Bunderson & Thompson, 2009). The present study builds on existing analyses of criminal defense lawyers’ professional commitment by applying a narrative framework to the case study of penitentiary defenders (hereinafter, defensoresFootnote 1), Chilean lawyers who work for the Unit of Penitentiary Defense (hereinafter, the UPD), a relatively new agency that provides legal assistance and enables convicted prisoners to file grievances and report rights violations before criminal courts. Drawing on 45 interviews with 37 defensores, I examine the ways in which public attorneys in the Chilean criminal justice system incorporate biographical experiences and life events into coherent narratives that support and justify their professional roles.

Findings reveal that defensores use four main narratives as explanations for their professional commitment to criminal defense. One narrative type addresses defensores’ first-hand interactions with the justice system in the past. Since some have experienced the vicissitudes of the justice system from a very young age ––usually because of relatives’ involvement in criminal activities –– a group of defensores rely on narratives in which they identify themselves with the population they serve (narratives of identification). A second narrative type refers to childhood experiences of social privilege and economic wellbeing as foundations for defensores’ need to give back to society. This narrative type reveals that some defensores understand their past as a source of social indebtedness to marginalized populations (narratives of privilege). A third narrative type, narratives of calling, occurs when defensores refer to different life scenarios ––beginning in childhood and adolescence–– where they demonstrate having the abilities to engage in advocacy and social justice endeavors. These narratives are presented as cohesive life stories that attest that defensores have always had the skills and motivation needed to be a good defensor. The fourth and final narrative type takes place when defensores revere the meaningful relationships they had with mentors in the past –such as primary teachers, grandparents, or law school professors– and present their current professional practice as a way of honoring the values, principles, and ideals put forward by these early role models (narratives of admiration). Furthermore, these narratives do not occur in a vacuum: they are produced under broader large-scale historical trends that have taken place in Chile over the past decades.

The contribution of the article is thus twofold. First, it contributes to the broader literature of punishment and society studies by situating the role of individual agency in the configuration, development, and success of penal projects. Second, the article contributes to the criminal indigent defense literature –and the literature of professional narratives more broadly– by explaining how legal aid lawyers become personally and professionally invested in agencies within the criminal justice system. It shows how professionals in a criminal justice agency engage in meaning-making processes through the creation of biographical narratives that tie personal and professional self-understandings together.

In sum, this study incorporates a narrative perspective of personal commitment to professional work in criminal justice institutions and thus contributes to new understandings about the ways in which individuals become involved in penal projects. It shows how penal practitioners undertake a narrative reconstruction of their biographical experiences that allows them to make sense of their professional commitment to the provision of legal aid within the criminal justice system. In doing so, it takes a deeper look at the institutional development of the criminal justice system from the perspective of individuals who inhabit it. Examining how individuals interpret their pasts ––the memories they recall, the life scenes they recount, the milestones they celebrate, and the plot lines they put together –– is important for identifying how and why some pathways lead to personal and professional stories of commitment (McAdams et al., 1997). The personal biographies and life narratives of actors in criminal justice agencies such as the UPD can strengthen current understandings of penal change.

In terms of structure, the next section of the article describes the legal practice of indigent criminal defense, discusses the strengths and weaknesses of dominant theories of criminal defense attorneys’ professional commitment, and outlines key features of narrative theory. The subsequent section presents the case of the Unit of Penitentiary Defense (UPD), its origins, background, and the current challenges that defensores encounter in their daily practice. I then describe the data and methods. The findings section describes the four types of narratives that defensores resort to in order to make sense of their personal commitment to their professional identities. The final section discusses the theoretical contribution and the value of exploring professional commitment from a narrative perspective in criminal justice research.

Indigent criminal defense: dominant explanations and narrative theory

A fundamental component of modern criminal justice systems is the provision of indigent defense, i.e., the protection of the legal rights of those accused of breaking the law who cannot afford their own attorney (Baćak et al., 2020). Both Anglo-Saxon and Latin American scholarship reveal that, while a necessary part of functional legal systems, public defenders encounter numerous challenges. Client turnover, engagement in multiple cases, and the lack of attention from judges and courts causes the routinization of lawyers’ tasks and undermines their ability to adequately perform their duties (Emmelman, 1993; Etienne, 2004: 1244; Libedinsky, 2015; Norton et al., 2015; Stippel et al., 2020; Venegas, 2018; Zaloznaya & Nielsen, 2011: 920). Adverse working conditions can undermine lawyers’ commitment to the profession and render the provision of legal services for vulnerable populations a dull, frustrating, and exhausting experience. However, despite these multiple challenges, many attorneys decide to accept these conditions and work as legal aid professionals (Baćak et al., 2020; Curran & Noone, 2007: 78, Emmelman, 1993; Etienne, 2004; McIntyre, 1987).

Studies of criminal and indigent defense lawyers provide different explanations of this professional commitment. First, some attribute cause lawyers and criminal defenders’ commitment to legal aid to a “social justice personality” and psychological dispositions to caring labor that prompts them to engage in self-sacrificing behaviors for the benefit of others. Second, rational choice theorists explain engagement in public defense as the result of a cognitive assessment of the benefits and costs involved in the practice, including monetary rewards and other tangible benefits. Lawyers assess the “market-value” of their capacities and aptitudes to maximize the profit out of the possible opportunities within their reach. Finally, structural explanations ascribe personal commitment to individual positions within the social structure in terms of class, race, and gender. They usually point to the capacity of lawyers that come from underprivileged backgrounds to develop more empathetic dispositions towards marginalized populations (Baćak et al., 2020; Etienne, 2004; Menkel-Meadow, 1998).

These traditional explanations provide valuable knowledge about the possible factors that sustain legal aid lawyers’ commitment to indigent defense, but some important elements are missing. First, explanations based on personality traits often overlook the power of social forces in shaping and changing individual’s social lives (Dannefer et al., 2016: 88–89; Thorne, 2004: 365). Second, the cognitive perspective of decision-making assumes that individuals are rational calculators who are free to choose their professional careers. They also present us with a false dichotomy between material and ideal modes of action and overlook the fact that individuals can be driven by both tangible and intangible rewards (Somers, 1994). Finally, structural explanations derive the meaning of action from “totalizing fictions” in which fixed categories of experience (such as race, class, and gender) over-determine actors’ decisions (Somers, 1994: 610 − 11). A universalistic framework like this reifies essentialist categories (like being Black or female) and would not explain other (more profitable) career choices of non-privileged non-white female lawyers that are not motivated by engagement to a social cause. To further understand how individuals participate in the advancement and development of penal projects, it is crucial to examine how they themselves construct their personal biographies around their professional roles. To date, these processes of professional identity construction as explanations of commitment to criminal justice defense are absent from the majority of these accounts.

Narrative theory has become a crucial methodology in the exploration of processes of professional commitment. One of the core issues of the modern idea of personal identity is based upon on the notion that individuals are active participants of their own self-construction; they revise their personal past, examine the present, and foresee the future in terms of an integrative narrative of self that gives unity and purpose to their lives (Bruner, 1991; Giddens, 1991; Mead, 1934). Narrativists have coined the terms “Homo Narrans” and “Homo Fabulans” to highlight the readiness of the human species for the narrative organization of experience (Czarniawska, 2004; Fischer, 1987). Narratives — in the form of legends, history, fables, or conversation — are the medium through which humans construct, recall, and organize their experiences and memories of reality (Bruner, 1991). Narratives can reveal both the socio-structural components that condition material existence —such as historical, cultural, and economic forces — but also the biographical, full-fledged, reflective, plastic, and creative nature of the human mind (Mead, 1934).

In the modern world, professional identity has become a defining trait of the self and its everyday action (Ashforth & Schinoff, 2016; Bunderson & Thompson, 2009; Fine, 1996). Professions and professional organizations, such as the workplace, offer a structure by which individuals define their work and identity in order to address a central question: ‘What kind of person am I?’ (Ashforth & Schinoff, 2016; Fine, 1996; Ibarra, 1999; Ibarra & Barbulescu, 2010; van Hulst & Ybema, 2020). Narrative studies examine the ways in which professionals incorporate biographical experiences and life events into coherent narratives that support and justify their professional roles (Bloom et al., 2021; Bunderson & Thompson, 2009; Christiansen, 1999; McAdams et al., 1997).

These studies describe the different type of stories professionals tell about themselves. For instance, expert narrativist and social psychologist Dan McAdams coined the term “generative stories” to describe personal accounts in which narrators enjoy an early family blessing, are sensitive to the suffering of others at an early age, and set personal goals for the future to benefit society (McAdams et al., 1997; McAdams, 2001; McAdams & Bauer, 2004). Generativity can be found in a vast array of life pursuits, including professional activities and volunteer endeavors (McAdams & de St. Aubin, 1992: 1003). Similarly, Bloom et al. discovered that many “called” professionals, such as social aid workers, pastors, physicians, and teachers engage in processes of self-discovery to create a “narrative of discernment” where they realize that their unique talents and aptitudes preceded and somehow anticipated their destiny of dedicating themselves to caregiving professions (Bloom et al., 2021: 312, similarly, Swen, 2020). The stories professionals build to tie their personal biographies to their professional roles help narrators not only generate consistency and stability in their sense of self but also help them explain their competence for their professional practice (McAdams & Guo, 2015). Yet to date, few studies on professional commitment to criminal justice institutions have applied a narrative framework to personal processes of professional identity construction.

The unit of penitentiary defense: origins, background, and challenges

This research examines the Chilean Unit of Penitentiary Defense, a relatively new institution in the Chilean criminal justice system (established in 2009), as a case study for the exploration of professional narratives in criminal indigent defense. Outraged by the precarious conditions of Chilean prisons, a group of penal experts, public defenders and a specialized team of social workers developed an interdisciplinary project to assist convicted prisoners make legal claims and report situations of abuse against prison authorities (Libedinsky, 2015). At the time, the living conditions of the more than 46,000 prisoners in Chile were (and continue to be) precarious and inhumane. In 2008, a report described the existence of torture, cruel treatment, and degrading conditions along with inadequate access to drinking water, food, education, and medical services in Chilean prison facilities (Universidad Diego Portales, 2008: 77). Allied with the Spanish Agency for International Development Cooperation, a team of professionals created the Unit of Penitentiary Defense (UPD) and instituted the role of the penitentiary defender (defensor). Unlike regular public defenders —lawyers who protect the rights of individuals accused of crimes during a criminal investigation — penitentiary defenders provide indigent defense and initiate administrative and judicial action to protect convicted prisoners’ constitutional rights while serving their sentences (Libedinsky, 2015; Stippel et al., 2020; Venegas, 2018).Footnote 2 Institutional equivalents of the UPD can be found in Australia (Prison Advice Center from the Legal Services Commission), Argentina (Defensoría General de la Nación), and Ecuador (Defensoría Pública).Footnote 3 With the new UPD and its contingent of defensores, convicted prisoners gained, for the first time, post-sentencing access to public legal assistance (Libedinsky, 2015). The program currently has 54 defensores working across the country’s entire 16 regions (Stippel et al., 2020).

Important sociopolitical factors gave way to the institutionalization of the UPD. In the year 2000, the Chilean government implemented a criminal justice reform, widely known as the “Reforma Procesal Penal.” The Reforma was the result of two large-scale phenomena; first, a political movement aimed at strengthening the rule of law and human rights protections after the legacy of Pinochet’s authoritarian regime, and second, increased demands for effective criminal prosecution (Hathazy, 2016; Wilenmann, 2020). The Reforma entailed vast public investments in new infrastructure and employment opportunities and thus gave way to a massive new state bureaucracy (Wilenmann, 2020, in Argentina similarly: Bergoglio, 2009), which recruited a new emergent class of criminal justice professionals.

Another important factor is the Supreme Decree of 1981 which allowed for the creation of private universities. This in turn gave middle-class and first-generation students greater access to higher education (Chacón, 2015; Villalonga, 2021). Between 1982 and 1993, 25 new law schools were established in both public and private universities. By 2014, there were 49 law schools in Chile (Villalonga, 2021). The expansion of higher education enrollment, the proliferation of private law schools, and the growing participation of groups traditionally excluded from liberal professions contributed to the diversification of the social origins and demographics of law students (Villalonga, 2021: 414) as well as the expansion of an available workforce for civil service (similarly, Bergoglio, 2009).

A final factor is linked to far-reaching restructuring attempts of the Chilean public sector which took place in the wake of Pinochet’s dictatorship. This restructuring primarily sought to outsource a wide range of tasks and services and establish the adoption of market-type employment mechanisms (Herrera et al., 2020; Mori, 2020), which has given way to a so-called mixed defense system, where the state employs different forms of public tenders in which private practitioners (in this case, defensores) bid to offer legal aid at the lowest cost (Stippel et al., 2020; Villalonga, 2021). This public-private system offers defensores a middle-range competitive salary for the Chilean job market (± U$2,000 monthly), not comparable with high wages from top law firms, but analogous to the remuneration from other similar white-collar jobs in the public system. Reformist projects, the expansion of job opportunities, access to higher education, and flexible government contracts have given way to greater access to legal services to marginalized populations (Bergoglio, 2009: 22–23) and also provide emergent legal professionals with ample work opportunities.

As state officials, the work of defensores presents many challenges. They are exposed to the traditional restrictions of public bureaucracies and must fight against the precarity of the Chilean prison system. They work with limited resources, staff shortages, as well as emotionally exhausting encounters with state clients. Note that there is only one defensor per 1,000 prisoners (Stippel et al., 2020). Moreover, correctional authorities have resisted the presence of defensores in prison facilities (Libedinsky, 2015: 237) and a predominant sector in the Chilean judiciary has proven to be skeptical of legal claims regarding prisoners’ constitutional rights (Libedinsky, 2015; Venegas, 2018). High caseloads, institutional resistance, and adverse work conditions threatens defensores’ motivation to remain on the job. Therefore, the puzzle remains: Why do defensores decide to commit themselves to work in indigent defense?

Data and methods

Data in this study come from in-depth interviews with 37 defensores undertaken between December 2019 and November 2021. Interviews lasted on average 60–70 min and were audio recorded (with participants’ permission) and transcribed. Only the quotes used in this paper were translated into English.Footnote 4 I refer to participants by pseudonyms and have removed or slightly changed identifying information.

During the period from December 2019- February 2020 I conducted seven in-person interviews and managed to establish good rapport with my interviewees. However, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, my in-person fieldwork was brought to a halt in March of 2020. I adjusted my methodological approach and begun to conduct interviews via telephone and video communication (through Zoom, a video communication platform). I also began to sustain constant communication with many of my interviewees through a free instant messaging application (WhatsApp). The use of the video platforms and text messages reconfigured my fieldwork and increased my research access instead of decreasing it (see also: Ndhlovu, 2021). For instance, before COVID-19, clarifying or expanding on some points of the interviews was unlikely or unrealistic once they had been conducted. Unless I scheduled a new interview, interviewees would consider their interaction with me to be restricted to the specific time and place where the interview was carried out. After the COVID-19 pandemic began, I was able to request clarifications via email or WhatsApp messages. Defensores themselves would text me or send audio messages to clarify their points, send me new information, or expand on subjects of their interest.

The interviews were semi-structured and organized as life-story interviews, covering participants’ lives from childhood to the present. By November 2021, I had interviewed 28 current defensores, 9 former defensores (Interviewees = 37), and conducted 8 follow-up interviews with defensores with whom I established good rapport (Interviews = 45).Footnote 5 The majority of the interviews took place during the pandemic, which makes it difficult to capture any substantive difference in professional narratives pre- and post-COVID. The sample of defensores consists of 21 women and 16 men, with a mean age of 36 years old. Many of these defensores are first-generation college students (N = 17) or middle-class (N = 20) students that come from second or third tier law schools (N = 32). All 9 of the former defensores in the sample had secured jobs in private or public legal practice after leaving the Unit.

In the interviews, I aimed to elicit detailed life stories and inquire into defensores’ personal and professional lives. I included questions focused on personal and family backgrounds, education, law school training and graduate studies, and their understandings of professionalism. Questions about their current routine as defensores revolved around their everyday work duties and workload, their perceived skills, milestones or significant career experiences, and relationships with colleagues and clients.

I did not begin the interview processes with a focus on the connection between personal stories and professional narratives. Initial comments indicating a sense of connection between defensores’ personal pasts and professional presents shifted the focus of the ensuing interviews. It became apparent that if I sought to fully grasp defensores’ understanding of their profession, the interview questionnaire needed to delve deeper into their view of themselves, their pasts, their families, their values, and other moments of introspection. Most of the interviewees were eager to discuss their personal and professional lives and I was thus able to obtain large amounts of data on both their personal experiences as well as their general ideas of penitentiary defense. As a Chilean lawyer myself, I have the advantage of understanding the inner workings and decision-making practices of the prison field, cultural expectations about the legal profession, and knowledge of juridical jargon.

I used an open and axial coding scheme with NVivo 12 to identify emergent categories from the interviews. In examining these data, I took a grounded theory approach (Glaser & Strauss, 2017), which allows the researcher to inductively develop theory from fieldwork in a flexible, yet systematic way, which is especially useful in social justice inquiry (Charmaz, 1999). The interviews were analyzed as storied psychosocial constructions rather than as veridical reports of the past (McAdams et al., 1997). I first read through all the interviews and sorted comments into an emergent set of topical categories. Those comments reflecting a belief that being a defensor was “something that one was meant to be or part of who one has always been” emerged as the most frequently coded category in the data, in 29 out of 37 interviewees (close to 80%). Sample comments included “I knew this is what I was meant to do,” “I see prisoners and I see my family,” “This is where I belong,” and “I can’t see myself working anywhere else.” After several iterations through the entire set of interviews, I reached a point of saturation at which I developed autonomous categories for relevant excerpts.

The second round of coding and in-depth analysis focused on how defensores narrate their past and connect it to their present. As common themes began to emerge, I resorted to studies on public defense, cause lawyering, public administration, and narrative analysis. Narrative theory offered a powerful toolkit to analyze life scenes, plots, characters, and linguistic resources (Bruner, 1991; McAdams et al., 1997; McAdams, 2001; McAdams & Guo, 2015; McLean et al., 2007; Somers, 1994; Thorne, 2004). Studies on narrative criminology (Fleetwood et al., 2019; Presser, 2016; Ugelvik, 2016; van Hulst, 2013) and work as a calling in administrative sciences also offered a strong theoretical precedent to explain preliminary findings (Bunderson & Thompson, 2009; Bloom et al., 2021).

The end result was an articulation of the different life scenes, inner dialogues, and reflections presented by defensores of the ways in which the criminal justice system is narrativized and becomes embedded in their personal accounts. As I coded the interviews, four themes emerged as crucial elements of interpretation: identification, privilege, calling, and admiration. A summary of these categories is presented in Table 1.

Table 1 Narrative categories and sample quotes

I coded as “Identification” those comments highlighting the importance of interviewees’ first-hand experiences with the Chilean criminal justice system prior to becoming a defensor, including testimonies of marginalization, crime involvement, and visits to criminal justice agencies such as criminal courts and penal facilities. This code also comprises references to how these past experiences of institutional contact shaped defensores’ current sense of aptitude and professionalism. I used the label “Privilege” to code excerpts where defensores mention their privileges and past affluence of both themselves and of their families manifested in accessing exclusive services activities (such as attending a private school or traveling) and purchasing upscale goods. Under this category defensores compare their past and prosperous living situation in the present with that of convicted prisoners and the moral duty that emerges consequently. I coded as “Calling” defensores’ interpretations of past events that demonstrate early personality traits and dispositions towards justice that make these defensores particularly suitable for their job. It also refers to premonitions that indicated a future in lawyering. Finally, I coded as “Admiration” narratives of role models who defensores’ report to have had an impact on their lives. It includes references to family members, significant adults, mentors, or university professors that provide an image of kindness, knowledge, enthusiasm, or aptitude for public service. This coding scheme is not mutually exclusive. Comments could be attached to one or several mother codes.


Throughout the interviews, defensores shared a narrative interpretation of experiences prior to the acquisition of their professional roles, which I argue helps them establish a connection between their personal lives –including their childhoods, family backgrounds, events in adolescence, and college experiences– and their commitment to penitentiary defense. A considerable number of defensores use some of the four narrative tropes discussed here, although in different shapes and scopes. The narrative construction of personal experiences indicates that defensores find sense and meaning from interpreting life events in their biographies as the basis for their professional engagement to the provision of legal aid.

Narratives of identification

For some defensores there is a clear connection between their pasts of precarity and marginalization and prisoners’ lives. In their testimonies, defensores draw equivalences between their lives and the lives of their clients and embrace the stigma of working with prisoners by creating rhetorical constructs that bridge the notion of “us” versus “them.” They knew about the vicissitudes and hardships of the prison world from a very young age. For them, their decision to be defensores is due to past experiences with the prison system.

The parents of defensores Sonia and Tito went to prison when they were adolescents. Tito explains: “I went to law school because of the experience we had as a family. That led me to aspire to be a lawyer. I wanted to study, study law, and be a defensor.” Tito referred to his experience of having both father and mother in prison.

I think that [his parents’ imprisonment] has helped me develop a skill, a particular sensitivity in my job that is different than [others]. [...] It is something that engenders a vision [about the prison system]. For instance, I don’t need someone to explain to me that women are subject to cavity searches. I saw it. But my colleagues have no idea how the prison world works. I believe that I am even thankful for what happened. So yes. I studied law partly because of that.

Tito also asserts that he has developed a particular sensitivity and understanding of the prison world based on events in his adolescence. Professionals who have had similar personal experiences to those of the communities they serve are able to identify and situate the decisions and contexts that gave way to the current situation (Clair et al., 2016). By putting prisoners’ lives in perspective, defensores like Tito are able to understand and empathize with their current conditions. When asked how his family tried to understand and make sense of what happened, Tito responded:

There is one reason only. This is rational. That’s the explanation behind crime. I can’t criticize someone who grew up in extreme poverty, like my parents did and the majority of prisoners do nowadays. You get it? I can’t ask them to behave like me. […] Their lives have been harsh. Very very harsh. That’s why they made that choice. [...] I see prisoners and I see my family. There has not been any social progress for them. [...] My father started pick-pocketing when he was 12 years old. He only reached 2nd grade. He finished high school while in prison.

Note that Tito conveys “I see prisoners and I see my family” explicitly. He advances a less stigmatizing understanding of criminality by contextualizing the choices his parents made under strenuous circumstances. Moreover, Tito also believes that his unwavering commitment to indigent defense is essential to professional practice. For him, legal knowledge and technical skills are less important than the emotional commitment of lawyering for a cause. Later in the interview he demands the UPD embrace an institutional policy that commits to recruiting defensores who are personally empathetic to the hardships of the prison population and emotionally committed to indigent defense.

The biggest problem that the Unit has stems from the fact that they only focus on technical aspects and leave aside the social [component][...] You have to make sure that applicants for this job are not only interested in the money. You get it? You have to make sure that they are passionate about this job.

Sonia’s narrative also reflects an experiential past and provides a justification of her professional commitment based on personal events. She opened the interview with a strong statement.

I have always been interested in criminal law. After obtaining my J.D. I tried to figure out how I could enter the Defensoría [Public Defender’s Office]. I never thought about being a fiscal [prosecuting attorney]. I have no interest in being a prosecutor, because they have a different agenda. Whereas I have always been interested in working as a defensora. To be honest, when I was a child my father went to jail. That’s why I am familiar with prisons. That helped me to decide what I wanted to do in life. […] Imagine me and my sister during prison visits. It was humiliating. I know how prison visits work. I know how humiliating the system is. I know how it is to leave the prison, go into your home and have yourself a cup of tea, knowing that your loved one remains locked up in prison.

Stories of negative childhood experiences (violence, poverty, problematic situations in the family like criminal behavior, and encounters with law enforcement) assist defensores like Tito and Sonia in the creation of their professional selves. These defensores’ social origins and experiences allow them to be more attuned to the experiences of the imprisoned and to obtain positive meaning from their traumatic pasts. To some extent, they are “experts by experience,” for they have witnessed their relatives become involved in criminal activities and have had institutional contacts with the criminal justice system as users (similarly, Anderson et al., 2008). These experiences also provide them with the knowledge and perspective to authoritatively contest mainstream descriptions that demonize prisoners and to create counter-narratives about both offending and punishment (Uggen et al., 2017). They also feel encouraged to investigate problems or complications that prisoners endure that may never occur to other defensores who lack such experiences.

The pasts of these defensores morph into an emotional and intellectual resource that is used as a way to understand and navigate the criminal justice system. By having experienced the prison system firsthand, these defensores aspire to dismantle common misconceptions about prisoners and look beyond the formal legal categories imposed by the criminal justice system. Their experience has helped them develop a sense of empathy that empowers them to fight for prisoners’ rights as if they were advocating for themselves and for their families in the past.

These narratives of identification are inescapably connected to large-scale historical phenomena that have taken place in the Chilean higher education system. Since the 1980s, the proliferation of law schools in Chile gave high school students from marginalized backgrounds –like Tito and Sonia – the opportunity to study law and obtain a law degree. This is actually a very new development in the history of Chilean legal education: only the massive access to higher education of the past 30 years could have provided access to the children of prison inmates to studying law.Footnote 6 Thus, defensores like Tito and Sonia are able to fulfill what they see as their purpose in life thanks to the possibilities that became available in the Chilean higher education market during the 80s.

Tito and Sonia come from families that experienced the prison system first-hand and have been direct witnesses of the destructive operations of the Chilean criminal justice system. As structural explanations of professional commitment would suggest, their place in the social structure may have influenced their decision to become penitentiary defenders. Sustaining a structural approach, sociolegal scholar Margaret Etienne has hypothesized that US attorneys’ racial and ethnic backgrounds may explain engagement in a cause due to the ‘obligation thesis:’ because “they view the protection of the rights of the underprivileged as being in their self-interest” (2004: 1218). However, the findings of this study suggest that these defensores’ social origins and their tough life experiences do not automatically translate into their commitment to penitentiary defense. Defensores like Tito and Sonia engage in creative narrative processes in which they establish a connection between their personal biographies and their involvement in criminal indigent defense. Thus, it is possible to suggest that individual processes of narrative self-construction complement structural explanations of professional commitment.

Narratives of privilege

While some defensores build a direct connection between their lives and the prison system, others associate their pasts of affluence and wellbeing to their current moral values and commitment to public service. To do this, they embrace a narrative scheme of privilege. They describe childhoods of family affluence and economic wellbeing and arrange the plot points of their lives to envision their professional selves as morally responsible for the battle against human misery.

For many defensores the idea of giving back to society emerges along with a sense of responsibility that logically leads to being a defensor. These defensores build their identity narratives based on —in their words —their families’ privileged pasts. They see themselves as enjoying a special advantage that most do not enjoy — let alone the prison population. Many of them depict their past selves as privileged children who lacked nothing. Today their gratitude for this privilege serves a resource to explain their desire to help the disadvantaged and work towards social justice. The stories of defensoras Eleanor and Sandra bring together disparate features in their lives to assemble a narrative that unifies and gives purpose to their profession. Eleanor, for instance, presents herself as a “privileged rebel:”

When I started to work in prisons, my parents were in shock. My mom was like ‘I have taken care of you. I have always protected you and now you do this?’ They couldn’t make sense of it at that time, but I know that they have my back now. They have always supported me. Always. Always. Always.

And I have always been kind of a rebel. In life in general. With injustice. This has increased over time. I always say to my dad that we have had many privileges in life; even up until today. The fact that I am working from home, in my apartment. All very nice. All very quiet. The fact that I go to the grocery store and can spend 100,000 Chilean pesos [close to $120 dollars] to buy three random things. That’s privilege there. From that position of privilege, we can do great things too.

We have two paths to take. One is to take shelter in our privilege, or we can try to do our part. As simple as that. I, from my privilege – because I am privileged–I am contributing to society. I haven’t taken a vow of poverty, though. Far from that. But I am contributing to society. And I am helping many people. I am not saying that prisoners are all innocent. I have never said something like that. I have never said ‘free them all’. However, if you are in a prison you have the right to live in humane conditions. Period. That’s what I am fighting for. That’s my contribution to society.

Eleanor revisits her past experiences and conveys the need she feels to give back to society as due to the blessings she received early in life. Eleanor’s narrative identity is a subjective construction that assists her in making sense of past experiences (her family affluence) in light of present events (her work as a defensora). The prosperity of her family has impacted her life: she can’t escape the inherent and long-term privilege that has benefited her and her family since childhood. Eleanor’s narrative construction of gratitude and indebtedness also helps her explain how she became the person that she is today: she has always been a “kind of a rebel” whose “rebellion” has increased over time. Her reconstruction of the past also provides her with a moral compass for her daily life, making it clear that her ethical values and beliefs compel her to contribute to society and help prisoners live in humane conditions through the institutional capacities of the UPD. This narrative of privilege provides coherence and temporal continuity between Eleanor’s past and present.

It is worth noting that Eleanor also makes clear that she hasn’t taken “a vow of poverty.” Indeed, the Unit of Penitentiary Defense offers decent material conditions, including mid-level salaries and flexible working time arrangements. In Eleanor’s narrative of privilege, personal and material motivations simultaneously come together (see: Somers, 1994). As a side note, consider the testimony of Vicente, another defensor, who mockingly encapsulates this circumstance: “When someone starts teasing me for being a defensor I tell them: ‘I am a defensor. I defend criminals. I like it. I make money from it. And I am fucking good at it.’” Rational and emotional motivations converge in defensores’ narratives. They harmonize their perceptions of themselves and their desire for tangible rewards to coalesce in a meaningful narrative of commitment to the profession.

Sandra also describes a background of family affluence. She explains that both of her parents went to college, with her father as a successful engineer and her mother having studied art theory. When explaining her motivation to work as a defensora she asserts that she sees it as a moral obligation.

From my point of view, I see this as an obligation. Not as an obligation that someone imposed on me, but as an obligation that I personally assume– freely and happily. I have been extremely privileged.

Note that my parents paid my tuition in college. I had to work to pay for books and transportation, but my father paid my college tuition. So, I have always felt that I am in debt to society. In my life I have always been so privileged, and I feel that I have to give it back to people who haven’t had any opportunities in life, who haven’t had access to the things I have had in life.

Eleanor and Sandra provide their lives with a semblance of unity and purpose by connecting their internalized life stories of privilege and the moral duties that stem from that privilege to the professional space they inhabit –– the criminal justice system. The stories these defensoras tell about themselves require them to analyze their distant pasts, when they enjoyed advantages and economic wellbeing. These stories are accompanied by their sensitivity to the suffering of others. Similar to McAdams’ description of “generative narratives” (2001), these defensoras see their class privilege as the source of their duty to share their advantage and put their talents at the service of prisoners and their families. This is not trivial: this type of defensor interprets their life story in such a way that considers their professional selves as morally responsible for the battle against human misery in the prison system. For them, “giving back to society” emerges alongside a sense of responsibility that logically leads to their professional commitment to criminal indigent defense.

Narratives of calling

Defensores also use a narrative strategy that consists of examining their deep-rooted individual capabilities, personalities, and core convictions as manifested through different life scenes. Similar to previous studies on called professionals (Bloom et al., 2021), many defensores build cohesive life stories that demonstrate that they have always had the skills and motivation needed to be a good defensor. Their path of discernment entails a process of self-discovery, where preliminary life choices and career decisions may have proven wrong. However, once lifelong skills are recognized, the decision to become a defensor seems rather obvious. The notions of duty, fate, and destiny play an important role in explaining how life —the universe even — wanted these individuals to become advocates of social justice.

The case of Valeska sheds light onto how some defensores build a definition of their past and present selves that naturally lead them to becoming a defensor. Even though she prepared for and aspired to go to medical school while in high school, she was not admitted. However, for her, the decision to study law is due to her exceptional oral skills and inherent sense of social justice. Ultimately, life circumstances helped her to discover her true self.

What happens is that at first, I did not want to study law. I liked it at some point, during high school, as one of many career options, but I wanted to go to medical school. I took the PSU [the Chilean version of the SAT] and I did not reach the score for studying medicine. I was put on the waiting list. But my score was good for law school. I liked that idea because I did a lot of public speaking and was part of the debate academy during high school. I participated in some inter-school debate tournaments as well. So, I applied to law school. I always think about justice; about being able to help directly and concretely. Truth is that I was also among the top 10 students out of the 180 students entering Law school that year. That was very important to me.

We can see that for Valeska, having oral and debate skills played an important role in her decision to study law. In her imaginary, a good lawyer also exhibits a sense of social justice and a desire to help people. She fits into this ideal type. Throughout the interview she makes it clear that she has both the professional skills required to be a defensora and a strong level of commitment to social justice. It does not really matter that law school was not her first option. Life showed her the right path to take in spite of her previous “faulty” preferences.

These defensores feel that they “have something” within them that has enlightened their path to working within the prison system. Carlos explains his life stance as a child and the enigmatic discovery his parents had in his early childhood: that he was born to be a lawyer.

When I was a child, I wanted to do something totally different. I really liked driving vehicles. A taxi. A bus even. But my father used to tease me. I liked defending my mother from everything. Whatever people said to my mom, I would defend her. My dad would always say to me ‘Hey, you’re going to be a lawyer’. Maybe that stuck with me since I was little and over time it increased. […] At the time I had to choose a career I said ’Ok. I’ll go to law school’. That was kind of a surprise for everyone, except for my parents. They said that they knew I was going to enter law school. Parents seem to know what their children like and want [...] For them it was a relief to know that I was going to pursue a career that I was supposedly meant to choose as a child. […] In fact, I have always thought that we all have to be equals under the law. Everyone should have the opportunity to see their rights being protected [...]. From that point of view, I was interested in protecting the vulnerable. Think of children, or victims without economic resources, or defendants. That has always been my motivation. To level the playing field.

At the center of defensores’ vocation, there is the feeling of being born with the skills and aptitudes to be a lawyer. Carlos makes a connection between his ever-present inclination for justice and his work as a lawyer. This is the connection researchers have found called professionals make between their gifts and talents and the particular domains of work for which those passions and endowments seem particularly fitting (Bunderson & Thompson, 2009). Defensores revisit and select moments and episodes of their pasts in a quest for evidence that would demonstrate how their early talents constitute the antecedents for their work today. These connections between the personal past and the professional present help narrators not only generate consistency and stability in their sense of self, but to explain and justify their competence for their professional practice (McAdams & Guo, 2015).

Defensora Fabiola began our interview explaining how being a defensora has been a blessing for her.

I never thought about doing this job. In fact, I didn’t even know that there was this profession of penitentiary defender. I never studied it in law school. It was not a thing to me. I wanted to be a public defender, kind of like Don Quixote. Now I see this [being a penitentiary defender] as a blessing. I decided to go to law school knowing that I wanted to help. That did not go away after I choose this path, because I still want to help. You get it? I just fell into the right place. A place where I can do things and help people who really need it and that are left unheard.

These narratives involve the idea that life “drove” these prospective defensores to the right place. Similar to Bloom’s narratives of discernment (Bloom et al., 2021), Fabiola’s narrative of calling prompts her to believe that her ever-present passion for social justice inevitably propelled her to embrace her professional role as a defensora. It is almost as if she was destined to advocate for convicted prisoners and become a legal aid lawyer in the criminal justice system since the day she was born.

Narratives of admiration

Legal professionals often recount the importance of role models in their childhood, adolescence, and university years. Mentors can provide advice, sage counsel, and positive support as professionals envision their work. Studies have shown that the presence of models of excellence in a profession offer plausible archetypes of what a committed professional might look like and depict ideal types on to which beginners can map themselves (Bloom et al., 2021). Findings in the present study reveal that mentor relationships operate as a narrative resource for defensores to understand themselves as loyal advocates of a social cause. Defensores honor meaningful relationships they had with mentors in their pasts and therefore create a “past of loyalty,” where they see themselves as honoring the intellectual and professional tradition put forward by their mentors. Defensores as mentees see themselves as the heirs of a tradition of commitment to social justice and conceive of their professionalism as the continuation of a path that was forged by others in the field.

Role models for defensores can emerge during their childhood or adolescence, but they appear more prominently during their college years. Figures of academic authority act as mentors who helped future defensores to find their true vocation and mission in life. Penal development is filled with stories of academic and professional mentorship, but very few of them explore how these relationships unfold. Defensores’ narratives of the present hinge on their view of their relationship with role models in the past. For instance, when I asked defensor Andrés about the origins of his motivation for being a defensor, he mentions his law school professor, Arturo Zebada.

When I entered law school, I always thought I was going to be a fiscal [prosecutor] to catch the bad guys. Like I was going to be the city’s hero. But I had the opportunity to meet this criminal law professor, Arturo Zebada. He showed us the other side of the coin; about the ways in which public defenders provide legitimacy to the criminal justice system, this terrible monster. That was a turning point. I started changing. I always liked criminal law, but that was the point in which I decided to go down that road [public defense]. I then had this vision about me being a defensor. That became a professional goal, but also a personal goal.

Tito recalls Rodrigo Cerda, a law school professor who connected with him and his fellow students at a very deep level. This type of guide instills and praises the capabilities and convictions of their pupils. Tito explains that Cerda inspired him and his classmates to be critical but also passionate regarding the legal profession. Cerda used to give books to his students and encouraged them to write essays and reflections about the uses and abuses of the law. Relying on the adamant language common in Chilean conversations Tito asserts:

Rodrigo was key. Key. Key. Key. He became a leader among us. He formed this group even though he knew we were poor students. None of us was a shining star, but he saw something in us. He taught us the core values of law. Today I feel that being a defensor is letting me do something with the core principles that I learned in those years.

Another defensor, Carlos, reflects on the importance of public defender Juan Ignacio Lafontaine for his decision of joining the Defensoría. I asked him what was it about Lafontaine that motivated him to be a defensor.

Professor Lafontaine –I still call him Professor Lafontaine- had the courage of a defensor. That courage of knowing that you may give everything up for lost, but your client still deserves to be defended. Clients have rights that must be protected, regardless of whether they have been convicted or not. We all have the right to defense, to equality of arms. There must be a balance [in a criminal trial]. That is how Professor Lafontaine convinced me and another colleague to choose this path. He inspired us to decide: ‘I want to study this, dedicate myself to this’. We saw him as a model, so to speak, from the point of view of litigation, his performance in court, and the passion he devoted to his work. That was what motivated me to be a defensor.

In professional circles, a mentor is usually somebody that also provides encouragement and intellectual stimuli (Sawicki & Siméant, 2010: 90). Individuals’ embeddedness in a network of mentorship or reciprocity heightens their sense of responsibility to their peers. Social networks support certain forms of sociability and identities that contribute to make commitment effective and permanent (Zaloznaya & Nielsen, 2011: 926). The stronger the ties to the network the higher the costs involved in relinquishing professional identities and practices, not only in terms of professional stability, but also in terms of abandoning a source of meaning and self-understanding (Sawicki & Siméant, 2010: 91).

It is worth noting that a historical key component of the socialization in the legal profession in Chile is the provision of legal training to law students through the National Legal Aid Service (Corporación de Asistencia Judicial). Law students in Chile have to go through a mandatory six-month unpaid internship after finishing law school in a public legal service. This internship was established to provide free legal aid for the poor, but also to shape “the spirit of a ‘socially conscious’ legal profession” through the training of younger generations of lawyers who would be sensitive to human misery in a spirit of social solidarity (Gonzalez Le Saux, 2022: 259, 264). Moreover, human rights discourses that have accompanied the installation of the Reforma Procesal Penal are also likely to have shaped defensores’ professional ethos. Thus, the spirit of solidarity that is manifest in defensores’ personal accounts stems from broader historical trends within the socialization of the legal profession.

Taken together, these examples show how role models help defensores build expectations and ideals associated with the legal profession. Andrés, Tito, and Carlos seek to honor the presence of those role models during their college years – their rhetoric, their values, their authority in the field – by putting forward the moral standards they ascribe to their professional roles. These moral standards stem from personal interactions, but also from the founding principles of the legal profession in Chile. Thus, they create a narrative of an offer, an invitation, a proposition to fight against the abuses and oppression of the criminal justice system. Andrés, Tito, and Carlos decided to honor that invitation by joining and remaining in the UPD. That also meant, for them, being a member of a communal experience that aspires to protect collective values and ideals about criminal justice. Being a defensor is thus being loyal to that invitation from a mentor in the past.


Why do some attorneys engage in the provision of criminal indigent defense despite the adverse work conditions that characterize the practice? (Ashforth & Kreiner, 1999; Baćak et al., 2020; Curran & Noone, 2007; Emmelman, 1993; Etienne, 2004: 1244; Libedinsky, 2015; McIntyre, 1987; Menkel-Meadow, 1998; Stippel et al., 2020; Venegas, 2018; Zaloznaya & Nielsen, 2011).The present study uses the case of penitentiary defenders in the Chilean Unit of Penitentiary Defense (UPD) to explore lawyers’ professional commitment to the provision of legal aid within the Chilean criminal justice system despite high caseloads, institutional resistance to the recognition of prisoners’ rights, and limited resources.

Findings indicate that defensores construct biographical narratives that reflect the different ways in which professionals reinterpret their childhood, adolescence, young adulthood, and law school years in light of their present circumstances. Defensores build and find explanations for their current professional engagement in their early interactions with the criminal justice system (narratives of identification), their intention to pay back the early advantages they had in life (narratives of privilege), and their sense of having a deep-rooted lifelong moral aptitude to advocate for the weak (narratives of calling). Also, the presence of role models offers defensores an example of what advocating for justice might look like and it also encourages them to live up to what they consider to be shared expectations in the profession (narratives of admiration).

On the one hand, this research complements current ideas about how penal projects endure and succeed. Scholars of penal change have explained how nation-level structures (Garland, 2001; Lacey, 2008; Lappi-Seppälä, 2011; Savelsberg, 1994; Tonry, 2009) and political struggles (Goodman et al., 2017; Loader & Sparks, 2004: 16; Page, 2012; Rubin, 2015) impact the shape and scope of penal institutions. By studying the agentic aspects of professional commitment to criminal justice institutions, this research adds a novel micro-level perspective to macro- and meso- approaches to penal change. On the other hand, it also complements existent theories about lawyers’ commitment to indigent defense. Traditional individual-level explanations of professional engagement point to personality traits associated with altruistic motivations, the rational assessment of the costs and benefits involved in the practice, and individuals’ place within the social structure (Baćak et al., 2020; Etienne, 2004; Menkel-Meadow, 1998). Studying the narrative connection defensores make between their personal biographies and current professional practice adds a new perspective to the agentic aspects of professional commitment to criminal justice institutions.

It is also worth noting that the narrative categories that emerged from this study are in dialogue with analytical categories previously identified by narrative studies of professional commitment. The “narratives of privilege” resemble the idea of “generative narratives” put forward by Dan McAdams et al. (1997), in which early family blessings motivate the desire of “giving back to society”. The “narratives of calling” also resemble the narratives of discernment described by Bloom et al. (2021), where narrators describe a journey towards what they see as their destiny in life. I have adapted some of the theoretical advancements of narrative studies to create new analytical categories that may better respond to the universe of meaning of the criminal justice system.

In terms of its policy implications, this study can aid public policy makers in the identification of professionals that consistently commit to their practice, provide adequate legal services, and remain in the job. First, defensores’ professional narratives can have a great influence into how the provision of indigent defense as a penal policy is implemented on the ground. Second, strong professional narratives may empower defensores to remain committed to the provision of indigent defense despite adverse working conditions. As has been stated elsewhere, a solid identity integration between self and work may influence professionals’ career success, sense of wellbeing, and occupational satisfaction (Bloom et al., 2021). Finally, defensores can mobilize penal change above and beyond the formal duties of providing legal service provision. Future studies on legal defense should explore how defensores put into practice the narratives that they have created for themselves.

Certainly, a narrative approach to professional commitment has important limitations. First, interviews do not allow for statements of a causal relationship between defensores’ narratives and their ensuing behavior – such as remaining in the profession or providing quality legal services. An observational approach that captured individuals’ professional behavior could complement the narrative findings present in this study. Second, the sociopolitical context of narration is key for understanding the substance and limits of professional narratives. As Presser argues: “We do not choose just any identities we wish; we are in no position to make ourselves up from scratch” (Presser, 2016: 146). Here, I have considered the influence of large-scale transformations in Chile, such as the reform of the criminal justice system, the growth of legal education coverage, and new trends in the expansion of bureaucratic infrastructure. However, historians are likely to provide a more complete landscape of the structural changes that may influence the shape and scope of defensores’ experiences and narratives. Third, the majority of the 37 defensores interviewed for this study shared an internalized, evolving story of their professional selves through the narrative examination of their personal biographies. However, not all defensores resort to a narrative reconstruction of their personal experiences. Future studies could formally test the coexistence or divergence of different mechanisms of professional commitment. A more formal and comprehensive comparison between competing theories of career choice and engagement (such as personalistic, rational-choice, and structural approaches) could provide a clearer picture of penal practitioners’ professional engagement in the criminal justice system.