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While the big Manhattan law firms are spending millions to wine and dine their summer associates and hand them thousands of dollars every payday, a small band of interns in a privately funded program run by the New York County Lawyers’ Association is busy at work in the swirl of state and federal courtrooms at the modest rate of $400 a week. But Grasford W. Smith, a first-year student at New York University School of Law, would not have it any other way. Last week, only days into his eight-week stint under the County Lawyers’ Minority Judicial Internship Program, Smith finished drafting an opinion for his boss, Bronx Supreme Court Justice Troy K. Webber. “It wasn’t but a couple of years ago I was in college,” said Smith, 21. “I’m surprised that my life has brought me to this point.” Never before in a courtroom, Smith now sits every day just behind Justice Webber, a spot that provides him an educational panorama. “When I first looked out into that courtroom, with the defendants and the audience and the lawyers interacting,” Smith enthused, “it just blew me away.” Smith’s quick start is similar to those of his five colleagues in this year’s class of County Lawyers interns: Debbora Gerressu, City University of New York School of Law; Michelle M. Johnson and Zoe Yoon, St. John’s University School of Law; Alycia M. Guichard, Fordham University School of Law; and Nathalie Elivert, Brooklyn Law School. Elivert, assigned to Judge Denny Chin of the Southern District of New York, described something of a total immersion experience. On day one, she said, Judge Chin told her, “You’re like counsel to me.” “That’s intimidating because I’m so new,” said Elivert, 26, who has worked as a campaign aide to U.S. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., and former New York State Comptroller Carl McCall, who was last year’s Democratic candidate for governor. “On the other hand,” she said, “there’s really no other way.” As someone who plans a future in international human rights law, Gerressu has been a bit surprised by the reaction of some who appear before Manhattan Supreme Court Justice Charles J. Tejada. “The defendants look at me as if I’m the enemy,” said Gerressu, 25, whose family fled Ethiopia. “I suppose it makes sense to them. It’s weird for me, though.” Guichard is assigned to Judge Sonia Sotomayor of the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which gives her the unique opportunity of watching a panel of federal judges interact. “Judges have different styles, they went to different law schools, and so you have to adapt,” said Guichard, 30, who aspires to be a family court judge. “I enjoy watching the way a judge’s personality changes between chambers and the courtroom.” The minority internship program was created in 1989 by Southern District Judge Harold Baer Jr. and his wife, Suzanne Baer. Judge Baer was president of the County Lawyers at the time. On a day-to-day basis, the program is run by Sophia J. Gianacopolas, deputy executive director of the association, and Lois Davis, the County Lawyers’ director of pro bono programs. While only six interns were selected this year, as many as 16 have been assigned to judges in flusher times, according to Louis Crespo, a special referee in Manhattan Supreme Court and a member of the County Lawyers’ Committee on Minorities and the Law. Applicants must demonstrate legal research and writing ability, financial need, and a potential for contributing to minority communities as attorneys. Judge Baer said the County Lawyers must likewise demonstrate value to the interns chosen. “What I insisted on at the beginning, and what I understand is happening, is that the judges we select actually do some mentoring,” said Judge Baer in a telephone interview. “I don’t want the interns sitting around the library reading the New York Law Journal. That maybe good for the Law Journal, but it’s not so good for our interns.” Four of this year’s interns interviewed by the Law Journal agreed that feedback from judges and judicial clerks on their legal writing assignments would be of paramount benefit during their summer experience. “For me, writing is the best part — and my greatest anxiety,” said Elivert. Nevertheless, she said she was pleased and humbled by the challenge her mentor issued. “Judge Chin told us right away that he’d like all his interns to write at least one opinion draft, and that maybe he’d have a superstar intern write four. “Apprenticeships don’t happen much anymore,” she added. “I’m grateful for mine.”

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