Law students often complete internships in a variety of capacities both during the academic year and during summer breaks. Some law students intern for government agencies so that they can get a solid sense of whether they would like to enter the government upon graduation. Other law students intern for their professors so that they can assist with legal scholarship. Many law students also intern for state and federal judges, either during the school year or during summers. Not only can internships be a good experience for law students, but interns may also complete valuable tasks for judges that can help clear the voluminous workloads of busy courts.
One of the most concrete ways that interns can improve the judiciary is through the work they complete for judges. Although federal courts have established clerkships for recent law school graduates, many states do not have clerkships at the trial court level. Additionally, in many states, courts may not have too many assigned staff to assist the courts in completing tasks. Since judges can only devote so much time to matters, the lack of staff can make it very difficult to complete judicial tasks in a timely fashion.
However, interns can help with this workload. When I was an intern for a judge in law school, I was routinely tasked with conducting research projects for my judge. This ensured that the judge stayed apprised of the issues impacting the trials which my judge oversaw and enabled him to focus on the judicial tasks that he could not assign to someone else to complete. Some of the other interns with whom I worked compiled factual information about cases that was helpful for the judge to reference when he was overseeing a particularly complex trial.
In a state in which I practice, there is a long history of interns helping to write draft opinions for judges. Several of my friends who interned for judges in this state told me that they were closely involved with decision drafting, and they felt like they had power and a voice in the judicial process in a way that they did not have by merely attending law school. It is not uncommon in this jurisdiction for courts to mention the intern who assisted in drafting the decision in a footnote, which is a really great way for a judge to help an intern build a record that can be useful to job hunting later on. One of my friends was really proud that he was able to search his name on legal research platforms and the footnote in which his judge thanked him popped up right away.
Many judicial internships simply involve the intern observing a judge or other court officers perform judicial functions without too much substantive assistance from the intern. For instance, I spent much of my judicial internship sitting on the bench with the judge, and if the judge wanted me to get something, or wanted me to pass a note to someone in the courtroom or in chambers, I was available to do that. However, even by just observing judicial functions, interns can have a positive impact on judges and court officers.
Not too long ago, I argued a motion in court, and when the judge took the bench, several interns also entered the courtroom and sat in the jury box. The interns observed the proceedings while the judge asked questions and my adversary and I provided answers. I noticed that the judge was really pleasant and had definitely read all of the papers that had been submitted in connection with the motion we were arguing. It was very unusual in this jurisdiction for judges to be so well apprised of the issues involved with a motion before oral argument, and I was surprised with the judge’s level of preparation.
Now maybe this judge was simply a great jurist to appear in front of who always read motion papers before oral argument. However, I couldn’t help but wonder if the judge wanted to be extra prepared for the oral arguments since several judicial interns were in attendance. The judge was able to use his preparation to distill the issues really well, which must have been useful for the interns who were following along. Moreover, the judge eventually thanked an intern in the footnotes of the decision, so perhaps the judge needed to be extra prepared so that oral arguments and drafting the decision were educational events for the interns.
Of course, I’m not going to get into the propriety of having unpaid interns complete judicial tasks (which I’m fine with since they get valuable experience in return and often do a great job), and I’d love to hear from judges about their own experiences with interns. However, from my perspective, judicial internships are not only helpful for the interns, but internships can also have a positive impact on judges and court officers.
Jordan Rothman is a partner of The Rothman Law Firm, a full-service New York and New Jersey law firm. He is also the founder of Student Debt Diaries, a website discussing how he paid off his student loans. You can reach Jordan through email at firstname.lastname@example.org.