[Editor’s Note: The Campbell Law Observer is taking a break from its usual editorial cycle to present first-person accounts from our law students who have enjoyed summer internships across the nation. This is the third of four submissions to be published during the first week of the fall of 2013 semester.]
I’ve always wanted to do advocacy work, but not having had much meaningful law-related experience, deciding between civil and criminal work seemed, at the beginning of my summer job hunt, both premature and problematic. Toward the tail end of the semester, just as the job situation was looking every shade of desperate, I accepted a position with Legal Aid of North Carolina to work on their Mortgage Foreclosure Project. About a week after my hitting “send” on a firm commitment for the entire summer, I was presented an opportunity to work at the Durham County Public Defender’s Office under the tutelage of a long-time juvenile defense and civil rights advocate. To my relief, my supervising attorney at Legal Aid graciously allowed me to split my summer.
My time with Legal Aid of North Carolina ended up being a surprisingly well-rounded practicum.
Reflecting back on my time with LANC, the work, as I experienced it, was demanding but the atmosphere in which it was done was fairly relaxed; much more so than I anticipated. Given my short tenure, my work at LANC was relegated largely, and necessarily I think, to research, with some exposure to memorandum-style legal writing, informal instructions on the ins and outs of a public interest law “firm,” and a thorough education of foreclosures and related defenses.
It ended up being a surprisingly well-rounded practicum. I had the opportunity to do substantive work and receive feedback on that work, to experience true professional collaboration, and have my input solicited and valued. The most meaningful interactions I had, though, were with the clients themselves. Some of them sophisticated, some of them not as much. If my experience there taught me anything, it laid bare the tremendous obstacles that people who otherwise lack access to legal services face in our current system; pro se defendants in foreclosure hearings seem to fare about as well as pro se plaintiffs do generally outside of people’s court. Though I started law school committed to helping underserved populations, my LANC experience brought into focus my understanding of the challenges that pursuing the civil side of that path poses and its potential rewards.
My work with the Durham County PD’s office helped solidify my interest in criminal defense work and, importantly, it reaffirmed my commitment to advocate on behalf of the indigent.
While my experience with the Durham County Public Defender’s Office is probably atypical, I consider myself fortunate for it. I was exposed to administrative processes I would most certainly otherwise have not, I was introduced to and met with key people and learned my way around the systems fundamental to Durham County’s court system, and I got in some quality courtroom time. My work with the PD’s office helped solidify my interest in criminal defense work and, importantly, it reaffirmed my commitment to advocate on behalf of the indigent.
My first week on the job, my supervising attorney was terminated. After having participated in a trial, observed first appearances and traffic negotiations, and been introduced to the judiciary as his intern, I was functionally jobless. At the suggestion of my former supervising attorney, I contacted the attorney responsible for interns in that office and was assigned a new attorney a week later. After only a week, my then-new supervising attorney went on leave to attend a week-long seminar, necessitating a transfer to yet another attorney, and then back. Because of my varied positions, I was allowed to participate in actions brought in both superior and district court, make a variety of motions arguments, visit the involuntarily committed, and gain some insight into sentencing and probation law.
Along with the invaluable practical legal education I received during my time at the Durham County Public Defender’s office, I was privileged to some of the inner political workings and had the unusual fortune of being exposed to three distinct styles of litigation from three separate supervising attorneys. In the end, the lessons I learned at the DCPD’s this summer will serve me well as I continue my work in the coming semester. My takeaway: lawyering, like so much of life in general, and in the words of my supervising attorney, is a relationship business; treat it and those involved accordingly.
Paul is a 3L at Campbell University’s School of Law.