New York’s courts are faced with countless pro se litigants dealing with legal dilemmas affecting core aspects of their lives.1 The conspicuous paucity of legal services presents difficult questions about the fundamental fairness and efficacy of our court system, and has ignited a search for innovative and inspiring methods of tackling it. In addition to alleviating an overextended court system, judicial interns acquire an outstanding skill set. And now, it also satisfies New York’s 50-hour pro bono service requirement for candidates seeking bar admission.2
In his May 2012, Law Day address, Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman announced the new 50-hour pro bono requirement initiative, to target the widespread lack of available legal resources.3 In fact, the New York County Lawyers’ Association recently created a task force, partly to “investigate what the legal community is doing…[and] what NYCLA itself can do to assist law students and law graduates meet the requirement in a meaningful way.”4 Judicial internships offer a unique opportunity to provide assistance for those who need it most, gain insight into the judiciary, and satisfy the new requirement.5
In a March 1995 study about legal internships conducted by law professors at Northeastern University,6 judicial internships were among the frontrunners in providing a better learning experience, along with legal aid and public defender offices. Nearly 90 percent of the students rated such internships an eight out of 10. A judicial internship is undoubtedly, a valuable off-campus experience. Especially since the majority of law offices believe “experience off campus trumps all,” a judicial internship is primed to provide law students with ‘real world experience’ and “a work history outside the classroom.”7
For New York’s judiciary, the amount of support it would receive from interns is staggering. Approximately 10,000 law graduates pass the New York Bar Exam each year. Requiring them to perform 50 hours of pro bono work amounts to a half million hours per year dedicated to addressing litigants’ legal issues. Additionally, a law student participating in a 10-week summer program consisting of 35 hours per week would perform 350 hours of pro-bono service. Even students participating in a program during an academic semester consisting of 15 hours per week would perform 200 hours of service. If half of the candidates for admission each year participated in such programs, the aggregate would exceed 1,750,000 hours of pro bono work directly benefitting the courts and its litigants. Moreover, under Lippman’s Pro Bono Scholars initiative, which allows law students to do full-time pro bono work in lieu of their final semester and gain early bar admission, students would perform 500 hours of service in one semester.8 Clearly, then, judicial internships would significantly lighten the load on an already overburdened court system.
While judicial internships have the potential to be a source of learning and experience, its success is contingent on implementing a program that provides a meaningful experience for the student without unnecessarily diverting attention from the court’s business. Many judicial internship programs focus exclusively on either courtroom observation or research and writing. An ideal judicial internship program should include five components: (1) courtroom observation, (2) routine interactions with the courtroom staff and attorneys, (3) legal research and writing, (4) weekly reports, and (5) daily instruction and guidance by the judge and law clerk.
Observations should include interesting matters pending in the courthouse. Routine interaction with the court staff, i.e., court clerks, court officers and court reporters should also be encouraged. Interns should especially make an effort to speak with attorneys about their arguments, strategic decisions, and style, subject to the proviso that what is said in chambers remains in chambers.
Because judicial interns would have the chance to become acquainted with individuals at every level of the court system, they would also learn proper courtroom decorum and etiquette, which are indispensable. Ironically, as much as the observation component provides examples of what to do, it often carries the benefit of teaching what not to do. Such a broad and deep perspective during the formative years of practice cannot be understated.
Of course, no judicial internship would be effective without a healthy dose of legal research and writing. The experience gained through digesting, assessing and researching issues on motions and other matters is priceless. With proper involvement and guidance from the judge and law clerk, students actively engage in both the decision-making and drafting process that expand upon the basic skills taught in law school. Plus, encountering live scenarios allows students to expand their knowledge of substantive areas of law beyond a casebook, adding yet another practical layer of experience from working in chambers.
A weekly report is another significant component. These reports are designed as a free style commentary that includes summaries of observations, thoughts and evaluations of the lawyers’ performances, their arguments and trial strategies, and witnesses. Interns should be encouraged to include their insights, inquiries, and criticisms along with anything else they wish to incorporate. Ultimately, the objective is that through these reports, the judge and law clerk will catch a glimpse of precisely where each intern is in his or her learning process. The weekly remarks also open the door to feedback, creating the type of mentoring environment that is the hallmark judicial internship experience. Through such feedback, students are presented with the opportunity to obtain first-hand insight into the judicial reasoning and decision-making process. This, too, makes for better advocacy upon admission, and furthers the purpose of Rule 520.16.
Finally, daily guidance and supervision by the judge and court attorney is a staple in achieving a successful internship program. The explanatory comments accompanying Rule 520.16 state that “supervision must be reasonable to the extent that adequate training, guidance, instruction, and evaluation will be provided to assure that appropriate services are being performed.” In this way, law students will be actively engaged in what they view rather than simply being passive observers.
It is equally important to provide similar guidance and instruction with regard to research and writing. In order to stimulate growth, maturity and independence, interns should be challenged to digest unfamiliar material and foreign concepts presented by the assigned motions and research assignments. Guiding interns through the research, analysis and editing process assists them in developing such skills along with the ability to self-edit. Additionally, section 3(D)(6) of the CLE Board Regulations allows for 1 CLE credit for every 50 minutes of instruction, if the program has “significant intellectual or practical content and its primary objective shall be to increase the professional legal competency of attorneys in ethics and professionalism, skills, law practice management, and/or areas of professional practice.” Judicial internship programs far surpass this standard. Providing CLE credit to judges and law clerks who mentor capable, skilled and competent young lawyers is certainly well-deserved.
New York’s 50-hour pro bono rule presents an opportunity for judges, law clerks and law students to cooperate in a way that will pay large dividends to themselves as well as the individuals and institutions they serve. Implementing a successful judicial internship program will provide an overburdened court system with some relief, and law students with an opportunity to improve their skills along with an invaluable understanding of the judiciary. And, imagine how gratifying it would be to see former interns appear in your courtroom (with full disclosure of that status to their adversary) as knowledgeable, ethical and effective advocates.
1. Court of Appeals Judge Victoria A. Graffeo, New York’s 50-Hour Rule: The Value of Pro Bono Service by Law Students, 85-Sep N.Y.St.B.A.J. 51 (2013).
2. 22 N.Y.C.R.R. § 520.16 (2012). NYS Bar Admission: Pro Bono Requirements FAQs, Nycourts.gov 1, 9 (2014), http://www.nycourts.gov/attorneys/probono/FAQsBarAdmission.pdf.
3. Jonathan Lippman, Chief Judge, N.Y. Ct. of App., Law Day Address (May 1, 2012), (transcript available at https://www.nycourts.gov/whatsnew/Transcript-of-LawDay-Speech-May1-2012.pdf).
4. Catherine A. Christian, The 50-Hour Pro Bono Bar Admission Requirement, N.Y. County Lawyer, June 2014, at 1. See Press Release, Robert Half Legal, Practice Matters on the Legal Jobs Front : New Robert Half Legal Survey Ranks Marketable Criteria for Law School Graduates (May 18, 2010) (on file with the online archives of Robert Half Legal).
5. Judge John C. Cratsley, Judicial Interns: Law Students Working with Judges is a Win-Win, 50 Judge’s J. 26 (Fall 2011).
6. Daniel J. Givelbar, Brook K. Baker, John McDevitt & Robyn Miliano, Learning Through Work: An Empirical Study of Legal Internship, 45 J. Legal Educ. 1 (1995).
7.Billie Watkins, Real World Experience: Helping Law School Students Prepare for the Future, N.Y. County Laywer, June 2014, at 1.
8. Tania Karas, Courts, Law Schools Gear Up to Launch New Pro Bono Scholar Program Next Year, NYLJ, July 9, 2014 at 1-2. mod.