Well, I’m now done with my 1L summer at a nearby Public Defender’s office, which was one of the more enjoyable and educational summers that I’ve spent.
If anyone (1L or 2L) has an interest in criminal law and is curious about the PD’s office, I strongly urge you to consider this program. I have *no* problem stating my mind, and were I less than fully satisfied by the program I’d certainly tell you. You can reach me via email@example.com if you have any questions. I'm sure that AI can also help you out somewhat - as he spent two (count 'em) two, summers in the program. I highly recommend his posts on the 2L summer, in particular his experience representing clients.
My experiences at the PDs office largely came out of the docket my attorney worked in – other interns spent more time researching fewer cases, so don’t think this one account is standard for either this office, or for PD offices in general.
Now as to the nuts and bolts:
The internship (like most public interest internships) does not pay and was only possible though an Equal Justice Foundation grant. I had almost no money in the bank at the end of the semester, but the EJF grant gave me enough to scrape by for the summer and put a deposit on a place for next year. I saved considerable money through bicycle commuting for the majority of the summer, which enabled me to eat out often.
Three major things to keep in mind regarding EJF grants:
1) Make sure that you’re being taxed in the lowest bracket you can be in. A number of us had a Huge amount withdrawn from our single check. We’ll get it back come return time, but cash in hand is always nicer when you’re living at the margin.
2) At GULC, PD interns (no matter where) almost *always* get EJF funding, so don’t be shy about looking into the PD office as a possible 1L internship. You don’t find out about the EJF grant until after you have the internship in hand (the PD gives you a letter so that you’ll be eligible for the grant), which can cause some stress.
3) However, a number of us decided to kick $50 into a common fund (and work on various fund raisers) for our fellow section-mates who did not receive EJF funding (all the PD interns did, as far as I know) for other non-profit internships. While we couldn’t fund everyone, we did manage to make some people’s summers a bit easier. It was a good thing to do and if you’ve the inclination to do something of the sort, please do so – don’t wait for an official committee from the school, just do it yourselves. Enough with the defensive LS competitiveness bullshit.
I’ve seldom left an employer feeling so impressed on every level. As a poet, I’ve contented myself with taking whatever interesting “day-job” presented itself, while spending the majority of my time and mental energy studying poetics and simply writing. Often (until my health failed) I was able to take short term positions which paid well but had no real benefits to speak of. Over the years I’ve worked for local and Federal Govt., private financial institutions, retail, colleges, as an independent designer, for non-profits, as a librarian, and doing various kinds of menial labor. None of them ever came close to exhibiting the warmth and humanity of the PD’s office, both for their clients and for their interns.
During this summer I was stranded up in Cape Cod (there are worse places to be stranded) when my car died. I missed several days. Then, recently, my grandmother died, and I also missed the better part of a week. In other places there might have been some kind of pro forma “Hey, it’s not a problem” speech, which would only mask an actual resentment of some kind. Yet at the PDs I honestly feel that neither of these situations caused any problems for me at the office; however I did feel a bit guilty that I wasn’t prepared to do the closing mock trial argument (hadn’t glanced at the damn material in 2 weeks). More on that below.
Each intern was assigned to an attorney. I’ve seldom worked for a cooler guy. In an amusing twist, he was actually younger than I am. I’m afraid I must dub him The Cobra but I do so affectionately.
I’ve been lucky in that I’ve known some wonderful attorneys whom I can emulate in certain ways. I look to them for pointers on bearing, conduct, their interactions within the social world of law. Granted I’m a persnickety asshole, so those pointers only go so far. One of those attorneys is The Third Son, blogging as Seth Abramson (link on right). Seth is a young trial lawyer who has always impressed me with is erudition, intelligence, and ability to make fine moral distinctions over issues that genuinely *matter* to him. (Seth’s a splendid poet as well, but that’s beside the point.)
I can easily add both the Public Defender herself (an amazing woman – you just want to stand up and cheer whenever she speaks), and The Cobra to that short list of wonderful attorneys. The Cobra has displayed remarkable loyalty and patience with some of the most difficult and obstinate clients I’ve seen. He’s able to state the issues to them clearly and concisely, and appraise their chances for them. I’ve never seen him talk down to or confuse a client and he has a remarkable ability to focus his clients, to get them to pay attention to the salient legal issues. As an attorney he’s tenacious, meticulous, and can think on his feet with the best of them. I remember he had one client who didn’t confer or contact The Cobra until the morning of his court date, at which time he insisted on going to trial. The Cobra didn’t even blink. The Cobra gathered what information he could in about 90 seconds, appraised his chances, was called for that client about 3 min afterward, presented his case, and won.
We had another client who was in denial (this happens often) and The Cobra walked that delicate line between pushing his client into what’s best for him and respecting his client’s wishes. At one point during the proceedings it kind of dawned on the client just what was going on – the “oh shit” moment. The client’s attitude was transformed and as we were filing his appeal, he praised The Cobra for his sharpness and tenacity – “Shit man, you’re some kind of cobra, you’re so fast and viscous. A viper – that’s what you are, a viper.”
He’s also an unabashed Detroit Tiger’s fan. I think that says all we need to know about his moral courage.
Needless to say, it was a privilege to watch him work for a whole summer, to see cases cycle through, beginning to end, and to hear his observations on them.
If you want to see a large number of cases from advisement to appeal and spend significant time in the courthouse, this is the internship for you. It gives you a good feel for what practicing in the criminal justice system is like.
The PDs office makes intelligent use their interns and they go out of their way to tell you how much they rely on you. Since the PDs office has limited resources, they use interns to do a lot of actual work, from morning advisements, to interviewing clients and witnesses, to researching topics. I must stress that this is not the “crap work” other offices might dump on you (all the attorneys did their own printing, faxing, photocopying, filing, etc.) – it’s fascinating stuff that gives you a wonderful window into the world of criminal law. You have a chance to contribute significantly to the resolution of actual cases, and it’s *quite* cool to watch a piece of information you’ve unearthed send a prosecutor’s case to the bottom, or to hear an argument you’ve proposed presented in a case.
The summer began with orientation, then launching right into watching cases and sitting in on interviews. They started us off easy and brought us up to speed quickly.
Beyond the day to day courtroom/client exposure, which I will explain in the next section, the program featured several special intern activities.
We were offered a tour of the state forensic lab (which I did) and a ride-along with the local PD (which I declined – I’ve been on ride-alongs before).
The PD arranged for us to meet a federal judge and get a tour of his chambers. She also brought in several guest speakers, including the defense attorneys who had represented Zacarias Moussaoui and John Allen Muhammad.
We also participated in the above-mentioned mock trial. We were given a fact pattern and developed it after we’d had lectures on trial overview/evidence, client interviewing, voir dire, openings, direct and cross examinations, and closings. All in all it was kind of a mini-course in VA criminal law.
When important or interesting trials came up, we were encouraged to go observe them. During the summer I saw countless misdemeanor bench trials, several full jury trials (all stages), and some very cool motions, including one basically drafted by The Floridian (fellow Section 3er and intern) for the “victim” in a case to be referred to as the “complaining witness,” a la the Kobe Bryant case. I got to see one of my motions used (restitution sentencing argument) although facts came out at trial that made UCA do some quick adjusting.
The Typical Day:
I left from my early summer apartment at 8am to ride the 6 miles into work. (Later in the summer, I’d leave at 7am to ride the 18 miles into work.) Arriving at 8:30ish, I’d stow the bike, sponge down, change into work clothing brought via backpack, collect pad and pen, and be ready to leave for the courthouse around 9am.
The Cobra (who worked the misdemeanor docket) would usually hand me 2-3 cases where I’d locate the client and go over their testimony, try to locate the prosecution’s witnesses, try to interview the prosecution witnesses, etc. I’d go with The Cobra back into lockup and talk with clients there. Every now and then The Cobra would ask my opinion on something, or ask what I’d do in light of new facts (given that I may have done the initial client interview). He’d also routinely ask what kind of witnesses various people would make – were their stories solid, convincing?
When court began I’d sit down and watch, normally with SurferDude, the other Section 3 intern, who was also assigned to the misdemeanor docket. The Cobra would meet with us between cases if he needed something done – taking a client to the clerk’s office, getting paperwork, relaying information to clients who had not yet been called, having us interview people who showed up late.
Court would end generally around lunch time, and The Cobra , SurferDude, and I would have a post mortem chat on our way to lunch, which we’d return to the office with. When we arrived, we’d sit down at the conference table with the entire office. We’d tell stories, rehash the day, toss ideas around, and swap gossip. This was my favorite time of day, actually – listening to the off-the-cuff impressions of practitioners.
After lunch until 5 there were a dizzying array of options: straight up research on a legal issues; interviewing clients, either alone or with The Cobra; calling witnesses; issuing subpoenas; driving out to crime scenes and interviewing potential witnesses, photographing the area, beating the bushes; going to a motions in judge’s chambers; going to the jail to consult with clients; going to the prosecutor’s office for discovery. Or we could watch an interesting case or do one of the planned intern activities (as mentioned above) Coffee was always involved.
Then, home. The work stayed in the office, and I normally made it back between 5:20 (early days, near commute) and 7pm (late days, long commute).
The office went out of their way to foster a sense of community. Doors were kept open nearly all the time and you could always ask attorneys for their impressions and suggestions. After hours, (Beer o’ clock, “downstairs” conference room) I went out drinking a few times with the attorneys, played softball 3 times, went to a couple of parties, bummed a few rides, and had good conversations daily. However, I missed the pool party, plus the famous retreat weekend (costs nearly nothing) to a resort lake out in the mountains somewhere. The other interns formed a trivia team that met up early in the week, and seemed to meet up for activities most weekends.
I had expected to participate more fully when I had signed on – although at that time I wasn’t dating anyone and had no book-offer on the table. When you add in all the “extra” unexpected things that happened this summer, including a rather large apartment move, I just had too much on my plate to participate fully in the office’s social culture.
Which is really too bad, as I enjoyed working with all the interns and the attorneys. I never felt pressured, defensive, or uncomfortable, and whatever few LS pretensions there were fell pretty quickly.
The office technology is poor. The internet connection was so slow we had to use Lexis as Westlaw took too long to load. Further, the computers are all locked down and run old browser versions, which made doing some computer tasks very difficult. A few interns brought their laptops in and used a free wireless network, which greatly eased the load.
There’s also not a lot of space in the office and interns often sit elbow to elbow. There are some quiet research areas though, so it all pans out in the end.
All in all, there’s very little (almost nothing) to complain about, and oodles to recommend. I think the summer was most valuable in making the abstract concepts “real” in a way that mock exercises never quite seem to do for me. It’s one thing to learn about subpoenas – it’s another to see a file of 50 of them, to write your own, send it out, and watch it work. I do appreciate my Section 3 education, but I think I’d have gotten more out of it if we’d had a dash of reality early on.