Lauren McDowell – dynamic, idealistic, and now a prosecutor

Lauren McDowell – dynamic, idealistic, and now a prosecutor

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On Their Way is an occasional series in which The Times introduces Island high school graduates who have moved on to establish themselves in careers on- or off-Island. We are looking for young people who have distinguished themselves by their accomplishments in business, in social services, in the military, in academics, in fact in any meaningful way you might imagine. Your suggestions will be welcomed by Nelson Sigelman or Whit Griswold, at The Times.

To hear Lauren McDowell tell it, her up-Island childhood was not out of the ordinary. Typical for Chilmark, maybe, but to most folks, growing up in Chilmark is anything but typical.

Now 29, Lauren started at the Chilmark School in 1986. After fourth grade, she moved to the West Tisbury School, a year earlier than Chilmarkers ordinarily make the move, because she was the only girl in her class.

“I wanted girlfriends,” Lauren said in a recent telephone interview from her current home on Kaua’i, Hawai’i. Even at that age, she knew what she wanted and how to find it.

Lauren is the daughter of Shakti Reynolds, a real estate broker, and Scott McDowell, a charter fisherman and artist, both of Chilmark. Her younger brother, Ross, lives and works in California.

Her life on Kaua’i is also anything but typical. Not even four years out of law school, and less than two years after joining the Office of the Prosecuting Attorney in the County of Kaua’i, Lauren is now the Second Deputy Prosecuting Attorney in that office. The County of Kaua’i is composed of its namesake island and Ni’ihau, the smaller, westernmost island in the Hawaiian chain, about 20 miles off the western tip of Kaua’i.

Kaua’i is six times bigger than the Vineyard, with a population four times as large. Its highest point, Kawakini, is almost 5,000 feet taller than Peaked Hill.

Lauren’s journey from the quiet of Chilmark to a busy courtroom in another resort community some 5,000 miles to the southwest was triggered by curiosity and a sense of adventure, along with the determination to make it happen.

But long before the first lei was draped around her neck, she dreamed of a medal being there. “I was an avid horseback rider when I was young, and I wanted to be a hunter/jumper rider in the Olympics,” she said. Even then, she was drawn to the big stage.

At Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School, however, she found competing interests. “I stopped riding when I got to high school because I started playing three sports — soccer, softball, and ice hockey.” With Liane Dixon and Heidi Vanderhoop and a few other girls, Lauren helped form the first girls hockey team at MVRHS, with Sam Sherman as coach and mentor.

As busy as she was at high school with her studies and sports, Lauren was always looking ahead, but just to the next step. “When I was in high school, I was just so excited to go to college,” she said. “That’s all I foresaw at that point.”

And what she saw was a school in New England, reasonably close to home. It turned out to be Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut.

Thanks to an unusual program at Trinity, in which all freshmen take a seminar, Lauren was first introduced to the legal profession. “I remember sitting down with my mom and looking at all the choices, and the one I chose was race relations and the law,” she said.

The seminar was taught by Barry Stevens, a sitting judge in Bridgeport. “We read Brown vs. Board of Education and other landmark cases, and it was the first time I had ever read anything like that,” Lauren said. “And we went to his court and watched him preside over a regular criminal calendar day.”

Intrigued, Lauren started taking more law courses at Trinity. She majored in political science, minored in legal studies. Late in her sophomore year, she knew she wanted to go to law school. She spent half of her junior year in Florence, Italy, and graduated from Trinity in May 2004.

Four months later she started Suffolk University Law School in Boston. The first year of law school is a grind, plain and simple, and few students can see much beyond the next exam, let alone the next assignment.

In her second year, Lauren met professor Ilene Seidman, who inspired her to concentrate in the family law clinic. Suffolk stresses clinical programs where students learn about an area of the law in class, observe it in practice, and ultimately apply it.

“By my third year, I was practicing under Rule 303 in Massachusetts, which permits third-year students in a clinical program to practice law,” Lauren said. “That was my favorite part of law school — putting everything together and using it. I realized I liked being in court, and I liked oral arguments.”

Lauren took the Massachusetts Bar exam two months after earning her juris doctor degree from Suffolk in May 2007. She was admitted to the Massachusetts Bar in February 2008.

Meanwhile she was accepted to a Massachusetts Family and Probate Court clerkship. She rotated between Cambridge, Worcester, and Brockton — doing research, drafting memos, and watching proceedings in court almost daily. It was interesting and very demanding work, and she was asked back for a second year, but she decided she wanted to do something totally different.

“I had been to Kaua’i on vacation with my family during college, and just absolutely fell in love with it,” Lauren said. “I guess I broadened my horizons about where I might want to work one day. Looking online, I saw that the chief judge on Kaua’i, Randal Valenciano, was advertising for a law clerk, so I applied. I thought there was no way in the world that he was going to hire some white girl from Massachusetts.”

Sensing the need to impress the judge that she wasn’t just looking for a year in the tropics, Lauren took the bit in her mouth, typically. “I remember talking to my dad about it and saying that he was definitely not going to hire me if I didn’t go out there. So I flew out there for the weekend. I was in the air more hours than I was on the ground.”

And it worked. “I think he hired me because there a lot of similarities between Kaua’i and the Vineyard, and I talked about the fact that I wanted to stay and work in Kaua’i.”

Moving to Hawai’i was a big decision for Lauren, but hardly a rash one. And she didn’t have time to second guess herself because Judge Valenciano wanted her to start immediately. “I moved on Labor Day weekend.” Lauren said. “I stopped work on Friday, and I started out here on Tuesday.”

Things have continued to move quickly for Lauren. After six months clerking for the judge, she was hired by Shaylene Iseri-Carvalho who had just been elected prosecuting attorney of the County of Kaua’i.

Last month, she was appointed the second deputy prosecuting attorney.

As rapid as her advancement has been, it hasn’t been easy. “My first year as a prosecutor I worked seven days a week,” Lauren said, “oftentimes till midnight. I was the only attorney in district court, where now there are three attorneys carrying the same caseload.

“I was in district court, dealing with misdemeanors and petty misdemeanors, the lowest level crimes — everything from leash law violations to drunk driving, harassment, assault, disorderly conduct. You’re in court all day, so you don’t have any prep time until after work hours, and then you have trials all day Thursday. Some days I would have five or six trials all going in one day.”

The hours have decreased a bit, but the caseload is still huge. Even in paradise, sadly, there’s plenty of crime.

“Right now I am the felony property crimes prosecutor, and I would say eighty to ninety percent of my defendants are drug addicts,” Lauren said. “Kaua’i and all the Hawaiian Islands have a huge substance abuse problem, especially with meth-amphetamines, and it’s taken over a huge amount of the local youth, who break into houses and cars, target tourists — picking up money to buy drugs.”

Lauren’s approach is more balanced than it might be, perhaps because she’s still idealistic. “If I’m working with someone who has no criminal history, I’m not just trying to throw them in jail,” she said. “I’ll make the extra effort to talk to their family and find a rehab that is willing to take them, to work with the defense attorney to fashion some kind of sentence that will ease the underlying problem.”

Despite the demanding caseload and depressing realities she has to deal with in court, Lauren is upbeat. “I absolutely love my job,” she said, even though she’s sometimes surprised to find herself where she is. “Coming from a liberal place like the Vineyard, and a liberal family, I thought I’d want to be a public defender, not a prosecutor.”

Perhaps the challenge attracted her, especially in Hawai’i where, she said, “the laws are so defense-oriented, and it’s difficult to actually prosecute someone.” It reminds her of Massachusetts in that way.

Other reminders of life back home are always present for Lauren. “That’s the hardest part of being out here, being so far away from my family and my friends back home,” she said. ” I wish it was easier to get back there more often.”

Not surprisingly, family and friends are eager to visit her, especially at this time of year. “It’s unbelievably beautiful where I live. I’m sitting on my Lanai right now talking to you and there’s a mountain range with two waterfalls. I often pull over on the way to work and take pictures with my cell phone, it’s so gorgeous.”

With her busy, demanding professional life, Lauren knows that she needs some balance in her life. “I have to make time for myself,” she said. “Right now I’m doing the Bikram [yoga] 30-day challenge.” Which may sound like more hard work to the uninitiated.

“It’s so easy to relax here, though, when you have time,” Lauren said. “Like later today, I’ll go down to the beach, and take my dogs.” Her companions are Coco, a small terrier she’s had for six years, and a mix she recently adopted from the pound, who she referred to fondly as a trouble-maker.

Still, like someplace else she knows well, an island is an island. “It’s a small community and everyone knows I’m the prosecutor,” Lauren said. “Guaranteed, 100 percent that if I go out to a bar tonight with some friends, I will see someone in there that I know from being a defendant. There’s no way to avoid it.”

As for the future, Lauren likes the path she’s on. “I really don’t know where I’ll be in 10 years, but I would love to still be a prosecutor,” she said. “For me, now, it’s about honing my skills and my knowledge in this area.”

Looking back, she was asked, how did growing up on the Vineyard influence her career choice. Not much, she said, citing influences even closer to home. “Having two very hard-working, motivated, supportive parents gave me the enthusiasm and drive to keep pushing toward my next goal,” she said.

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