On a flight back to Northwestern last year my seatmate casually asked me what I wanted to do “when I grew up.” When I told her that I wanted to be a lawyer, she looked me up and down and said matter-of-factly, “You’re just a little girl… you can’t be a lawyer!” I have a way to go until I’m a lawyer or even until the LSAT (although I wish I had longer), but this summer is my introduction to what a career in law would be like as I intern at the Federal Public Defender of Western Washington in the Seattle office.
Federal Public Defender was established nationally in the 1960s in line with the Criminal Justice Act (CJA) and the Sixth Amendment, which govern the right for those who cannot afford lawyers to be provided with high-quality defense counsel. Each summer, my office hires one undergraduate intern who directly works with the attorneys, investigators, and paralegals on case-related projects and administrative tasks. I knew about the organization beforehand and found the internship application on their website. I contacted an investigator for FPD who I’d met before and she approved me for a phone interview. After the interview, my application went to who is now my boss and I was offered the position. Someone at UCS gave me great advice that helped me land my internship: demonstrate a sincere interest in the organization, be persistent without being pushy, and be genuine.
The cases we get most often at the Seattle office of FPD are immigration, felon in possession (guns and drugs), child pornography, and fraud. I’ve directly worked on all of these cases this summer, as well as pharmacy robbery, probation violation, and murder. The cases that I work on are confidential, so I’m not allowed to repeat client names, defense strategies, or any information that may violate the client’s or our office’s privacy. We work on some highly publicized cases, so it can be frustrating when I want to show someone an article in the paper about our client or talk about an interesting conspiracy theory for an ongoing murder trial, but confidentiality is pretty standard in legal work.
At the beginning of the summer I did a lot of research on different parts of clients’ backgrounds: just how necessary is this prescription drug for the client’s health? What are the best sanctions and rewards for recovering drug addicts? How accurate are polygraph tests and can they be performed on people with degenerative diseases such as Huntington’s or Parkinson’s? These research projects evolved into writing memorandums that I submitted to U.S. district judges and prosecution attorneys representing the United States. I just submitted a memorandum demonstrating the likelihood that a client with Parkinson’s disease developed an impulse control disorder in the form of hypersexuality from the antiparkinson drug Mirapex that influenced him to have a child pornography addiction. In the memorandum that I’m currently working on, I’m analyzing how people become involved in illogical government conspiracy groups and their influence on people of our generation. I do an array of short-term projects, including data entry, searching through discovery, and, of course, lots and lots of research. Additionally, I’ve taken on several technology-based projects, including the construction of a template for discovery indexes, conditional formatting a spreadsheet on caseloads, and training both the Seattle and Tacoma offices in how to use Excel on both beginner and advanced levels! I also participated in a training program that my office held for me and the six law school interns on trial prep, how to handle difficult clients, the use of film at sentencing, and how to best use investigator assistance.
It hit me early on in my internship that I’m not just doing research or writing for the sake of my own benefit, I’m supporting a person who might benefit from my help. Guilty or innocent, everyone deserves someone to fight for them. I’ve seen that for many people, our office has been the first to ever do so. Working here has really influenced how I see the criminal justice system.
I’ve had so many incredible experiences that have profoundly impacted me. On my second day, I went with the law school interns to the U.S. District Court House for a tour of the U.S. Marshall’s facilities, where the accused are taken after their arrest. We smiled when the Marshall touring us said that he needed to put all of his heavy guns in the weapons locker before going into the next room, assuming he was kidding, until of course he did. He told us in gory detail, with a menacing look in his eyes, stories of suicidal and homicidal inmates and the strategies needed to restrain them that I’ll never forget. Another upsetting moment happened just the other day when I learned that a client whose case I worked on is about to die. The attorney and I discussed our shared desire for convincing the prosecution to drop the charges so that he can go without the shame of a trial. On a brighter note, I had an amazing experience when I attended the sentencing of a young client where the judge sided with the defense and did not sentence him to any jail time. He came up to me afterward and sincerely thanked me for the work I had done. It was an incredible feeling knowing that the judge had hope for his rehabilitation and wanted, like us, for him to get a second chance.
I feel so grateful for the experience I’m having this summer: the people are welcoming, the cause is inspiring, and the cases are fascinating. I’ve had invaluable hands-on legal. I’ve also had the opportunity to visit the U.S. District Courthouse several times and the 9th circuit when it was in town- I saw Judge Stephen Reinhardt who approved in a 2-1 decision that Prop. 8 was unconstitutional! I’m only a rising sophomore, so I’m looking forward to many more summers of internships during my Northwestern career. I can only hope that they’re as amazing as this!
About the NU Intern Blogger Program
This summer, over 50 Northwestern University students will be sharing stories about what they are experiencing at their internships from across the country and internationally. Each week new students will share an inside look at what it means to be an intern. Please contact Betsy Gill, Assistant Director, Internship Services if you have any questions.