As any lawyer could tell you, it’s tough to win a case without solid evidence. A new internship in Bellarmine’s Pre-Law Program is helping to give students more evidence of whether or not law school – and a career as an attorney – is right for them.
“One of the biggest criticisms of law school is that it doesn’t adequately prepare students for the actual practice of law,” said Dr. Lee Williams, co-director of the Pre-Law Program. “So I thought, What if we could start at the undergraduate level and let them see what the practice of law is like?”
She had heard about successful pre-law internship programs at other universities, and after getting tips on how to implement them at a national conference decided to begin one at Bellarmine. Under the program, which started in the spring of 2013, students earn three hours of political science credit in exchange for at least 90 hours of internship work per semester.
Eleven students have completed internships since the program began, and seven more are working as interns this semester. The list of providers also continues to grow. “We’ve had such a great response from the legal community,” said Dr. Williams. She tries to match students with attorneys, firms or judges who practice in their area of interest and who “agree that the interns will be more than ‘gofers’ – that they’ll be given real access, like watching trials and doing legal research,” she said.
“I never ran one errand,” confirmed Alex Marks, who graduated in December 2013 with a degree in political science and a minor in economics and started law school at the University of Louisville this fall. He had two internships at Bellarmine. During the first, with the Jefferson County Commonwealth Attorney’s office, he spent most of his time with prosecutors in the Judicial Center in downtown Louisville. “They dealt with all types of cases – economic crimes, violent crimes. I got to sit in on a capital murder trial. It was amazing.”
His second internship was in the private sector, with Hectus, Walsh & Buchenberger, a firm in the Highlands that handles a variety of cases, including personal injury, family law and divorce. “That one focused more on research,” he said. “I spent a lot of time in the law library.”
Together, the internships gave him a much clearer picture of what being a lawyer entails. “Seeing the ways attorneys work at the courthouse and how settlements are made and how judges handle cases gives you a much more realistic view than what you see on TV,” he said. The experience prepared him for law school by teaching him how to read case law and navigate the law library, he said, and it convinced him that he has no interest in practicing personal-injury law. “So in a way, it kind of told me what I don’t want to do.”
That can be a time-saving outcome, said Dr. Winnie Spitza, the other co-director of the Pre-Law Program, who earned her law degree from U of L. “I didn’t get to be a law clerk until I was a year or two into law school. I think this is a great tool to help guide students in making the right choice for them; to decide, is this really for me or maybe this isn’t for me; this is not what I expected, or it is.”
An internship with Jefferson Circuit Judge Olu Stevens cemented Angela London’s intention to practice criminal law one day. “My first day, Judge Stevens introduced me to his staff and then brought me into the court room to observe a bail hearing,” said Ms. London, a senior political science major from Manassas, Virginia. “From that point forward I spent most of my internship seated next to Judge Stevens observing hearings and trials, or working on reading and organizing old cases that would form the precedent for upcoming decisions.
“I had the opportunity to observe everything from a multimillion-dollar civil suit to a sexual-assault trial. The chance to watch some of Louisville’s best attorneys navigate the complexities of the law will be a memory I always have.”
Learning to be comfortable in a courtroom can give interns a leg up on other law school students, Dr. Williams said. “Law school is very case-based. You read a lot of cases. If you come out of law school and you’ve never been in a courtroom, it can be intimidating.”
In addition, internships can teach students things they might not necessarily learn in law school, she said, “like how to draft a complaint or an answer – the paperwork aspect of a case. How to do depositions and interrogatories. How to work with clients. How to work with people in general. So much of the law is built on one-on-one relationships.”
Dr. Williams, who practiced law part-time for two years while an adjunct at Bellarmine before becoming a full-time faculty member four years ago, learned those things at Buckman & Farris Attorneys at Law, a small firm in Shepherdsville where she worked for two summers as an undergraduate and all through law school at U of L. Attorney Eric Farris, her mentor, “gave me free rein to learn,” she said.
Ajla Hakalovic, who interned for two semesters with Buckman & Farris before graduating in May with a major in political science and a minor in criminal justice, said she was better prepared as a result than many of her fellow law students at U of L this fall. While she had had the chance to sit in on client interviews and jail visits, draft complaints and memos, conduct legal research and more, “some people had never even stepped foot in a law firm.”
As a general rule, Dr. Williams said, small law firms can offer more opportunities to interns than large ones. Most of the firms that have partnered with Bellarmine’s internship program are on the smaller side, she said.
One of them is the Christine Ward Law Office. Ms. Ward, a family law attorney who graduated from Bellarmine in 1991 and has a law degree from the University of Kentucky, said that as an English and communication major, she became interested in law through the Mock Trial program. She would have jumped at an opportunity like the internship program, she said. “I have always enjoyed mentoring young people, in part because I wish I’d had more of that.”
She welcomed her first intern last spring. “She got to do a little bit of everything that I do: go to court, draft documents … I’m also running a campaign for judge in Jefferson County, so she came on the campaign trail with me, did meeting and greeting, made phone calls – basically, I included her in just about everything that I could.” A second intern arrived this semester.
For Ms. Ward, providing an internship opportunity brings much more than free help; it also reinvigorates her enthusiasm for her work. “I enjoy being around young people,” she said. “It just gives you a different perspective when you see their excitement. People don’t realize that I get as much out of it as they do.”
Carla Carlton | firstname.lastname@example.org
Photos by Bill Luster