It is so rare that an opportunity not only lives up to, but exceeds, the hopes you have for it. This summer, I had the great fortune to intern with the Federal Public Defender’s Office for the Eastern District of North Carolina, where I worked with some of the brightest, most dedicated professionals I have ever met. I began the summer fully expecting an amazing experience. Prior to my first day, I contemplated what type of work I would be doing. I hoped that I would face novel legal issues with interesting fact patterns, and that my work would be meaningful. I wondered whether the research and writing skills I had developed in my classes would be sufficient for the tasks I would be assigned over the summer. I expected to be challenged by the experience, and to be improved. Time and again, my expectations were wildly surpassed.
What I could not have anticipated at the beginning of the summer was just how complex, interesting, and meaningful the work would be. My first assignment was to research and write a memo on the sentencing enhancements that might apply to a client’s case. This was my introduction to federal sentencing under the United States Sentencing Guidelines, a vast scheme whose complexity I could not have begun to imagine until I was charged with parsing its terms and reporting my conclusions for the benefit of a real, living, breathing client. As thorough as my Criminal Procedure Adjudication class was, I could never have grasped the import of the Guidelines as I read about them in the cold pages of my text.
For me, the Guidelines presented the greatest challenge of the summer. The most daunting aspect of figuring out the Guidelines was the extent to which our client’s future would be dictated by the outcome of his sentencing hearing, and, thus, by my research into the Guidelines. Depending on the particular Guidelines that apply, a defendant can face wildly disparate sentences for the same offense. This is a reality that I understood and accepted on a theoretical level when I learned about the Guidelines in class. In the impersonal language of the Guidelines, a six-level enhancement sounds abstract, clinical, innocuous. In the real world, on the other hand, that enhancement is quite tangible to the client, who faces the consequences of its application. Outside the pages of the Guidelines Manual, a six-level enhancement may mean that, rather than being eligible for probation, a client will spend a year in prison. In that year, she will lose her job and her children may be put in foster care. Her familial relationships may disintegrate and her community ties may vanish. The severity of the client’s sentence, determined by application of the Guidelines, will affect every aspect of her life. In fact, because the vast majority of federal criminal defendants plead guilty, the sentencing hearing is often a client’s most meaningful day in court. The importance of effective advocacy at sentencing cannot be overstated.
It quickly dawned on me that, if my initial assignment was as complex and important as a sentencing issue, I could expect my work at the Federal Public Defender’s Office to challenge and inspire me throughout my time there. It did not disappoint; the work did not get easier from there, nor did it become mundane. Over the course of the summer I went on to research several more sentencing issues, to write a motion to suppress, to write memoranda on issues of first impression, and to contribute to a petition for writ of certiorari filed with the Supreme Court of the United States. With every assignment, there was a new challenge, presenting a new opportunity to grow as a legal researcher, writer, and advocate.
My expectations were exceeded, not just by the quality of assignments I received, but also by the professionalism and dedication of my colleagues and mentors at the Federal Public Defender’s Office. Without the guidance of the attorneys, paralegals, investigators, and administrative staff with whom I was privileged to work, my summer experience would not have been nearly as meaningful. For every assignment, I received detailed, personal feedback from my supervisor. Even attorneys from whom I never received a research assignment were happy to answer questions and share their experiences.
The enthusiasm of the attorneys in the office, and their willingness to help an intern, was especially impressive given how busy they all are. The Eastern District of North Carolina stretches from Raleigh to the coast, with clients in local jails scattered throughout that area, and beyond. Attorneys in the Federal Public Defender’s Office are constantly traveling to visit clients, often to far-flung jails in out-of-the-way parts of the state. Regardless of the demands of a rigorous travel schedule, each attorney must also constantly be preparing for court appearances and writing motions and memoranda. These attorneys are able to meet the myriad demands on their time and attention because they are some of the smartest, most knowledgeable professionals I have ever encountered. They think deeply and creatively about how best to represent each client, and they support and encourage each other as teammates working toward a common goal.
One of the most challenging and instructive experiences I had over the summer came as a follow-up assignment to a memo I had written about a client’s chances of success regarding a particular sentencing enhancement under the Guidelines. After researching the initial assignment, I had determined that, unfortunately, the enhancement most likely would apply to our client. He would face significant additional time in prison. A few days after I turned in my memo, the assigning attorney asked me to revisit it. She was unconvinced that the enhancement applied, and she asked me to write some arguments against the enhancement in preparation for the sentencing hearing. When I received the follow-up assignment I was, quite honestly, less than enthusiastic about it. I had spent several days researching and writing the original memo, and I was confident that the Fourth Circuit precedent was clear. Nonetheless, I was asked to broaden my research, and that is exactly what I did. I conducted a nationwide survey, compiling information on how each circuit had applied the Guideline in question. After reading more than a hundred cases on the topic, I was prepared to demonstrate that, in almost any other jurisdiction in the country, our client would not be subject to the enhancement. I was able to write strong, compelling arguments against the enhancement based on the reasoning of the other circuits and the particular facts of our case.
Although we ultimately did not prevail on the issue, I learned more about zealous advocacy from that assignment than from any other. At the end of it all, I knew with complete certainty that we had represented that client as well as we possibly could, and we had made every possible argument on his behalf. I left the courtroom after that sentencing hearing disappointed for our client, but grateful that I need not worry about whether we could have done more for him.
Finally, I surprised myself by exceeding my expectations for my own ability. I vividly remember the feelings of dread and uncertainty that accompanied the memo I wrote as a 1L in my Legal Research and Writing class. I recall how we all worked on our memos practically all semester, and how even that amount of time felt insufficient. When I began the summer at the Federal Public Defender’s Office, I worried that I would feel overwhelmed. I thought that I might be paralyzed by fear when confronted with a complicated legal issue on behalf of a real client. Thanks to the expert guidance of my supervisors, though, that never happened. Although my assignments were complicated, and the issues were important to the ultimate outcome for our clients, I never felt like I was out of my depth. Each assignment initially appeared to be just beyond the reach of my ability, but, with the advice and input of my supervisors, I was able to stretch just far enough to complete the work every time. With every project I completed, I felt myself becoming a better researcher, writer, and advocate.
My experience at the Federal Public Defender’s Office was everything I hoped for and more. Not only did my legal research and writing skills improve dramatically, and my substantive knowledge of criminal law increase exponentially, but I learned invaluable lessons in professionalism and advocacy. Most students would be lucky if they found a single true mentor during their summer internship; I found many. I was lucky enough to have been surrounded by dozens of passionate, dedicated professionals who were happy to share their expertise with me. The lessons I learned and connections I made at the Federal Public Defender’s Office are the kind that last a lifetime.
Amanda Bryan is a 3L at Campbell University School of Law who will graduate in May 2015. She can be reached by email at email@example.com