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The law student and judicial intern experience in the time of COVID-19

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Judicial Interns

Briana Singson is a rising 2L matriculating into the Northwestern Pritzker School of Law. She is a current judicial intern through the Judicial Internship Opportunity Program (JIOP) with the Honorable Judge Virginia M. Kendall of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois. The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic added to the challenges of being a law student and intern this year.

Given the circumstances and the unique hardships that law students and JIOP participants must navigate, we asked Briana to discuss her experience, insights, and advice.  

In early March 2020, the global pandemic caused schools, universities, and graduate schools nationwide to switch to remote learning. How was your transition?

I was about halfway through the second semester of my 1L year when the COVID-19 pandemic began surging across the country. The pandemic brought unprecedented challenges to every aspect of society. For me as a 1L, I embraced it as the ultimate test of my self-discipline and grit. I attend law school in downtown Chicago, but I live in the western suburbs. When I first heard the rumors that classes might be held remotely to minimize the spread of coronavirus, I was excited that I would not have to commute two and a half hours per day while hauling my casebooks to and from school. Remote learning meant that I would not have to wake up at 5:00 a.m. each day to catch the earliest inbound train. I would have much more time to study. However, when we actually switched to online learning, I found that losing the structure of a routine and schedule made it difficult to stay focused. As the number of cases rose in the U.S. and society continued to shut down, I became very distracted from my studies. I was worried for my friends and family working on the frontlines against the virus. I empathized with the people who lost their jobs or did not have access to safe shelter. Further, headlines about the state of the economy and the politicization of the pandemic added to my stress.

What advice do you have for other law students who are also studying during this pandemic period?

Although it was perfectly understandable to not be productive during such an unprecedented crisis, I felt pressure to push myself as my future career still depended on my academic performance. First, I would encourage others in the same position to keep a regular schedule and daily routines. Admittedly, it took an immense amount of self-control to maintain my rigorous study habits. I have caught myself taking this to the extreme. Some days I had to remind myself to eat lunch, go outside for some fresh air and vitamin D, and move around and stretch. As part of this, I would encourage other law students to exercise regularly. Second, I recommend staying engaged with students’ law school and peers, including using this opportunity to virtually catch up with friends, meet alumni, and connect with students’ law school for events. Lastly, I suggest that law students continue preparing for their goals, such as applying for future opportunities, internships, and jobs.

Aside from virtual learning, did anything else change about the structure of your courses, and what challenges did you observe?

While most law schools transitioned to mandatory pass/fail grading systems, my school gave its students the option to take their classes pass/fail or to receive the grades they earned. The reason why I chose to “go for the grades” was because I was one of the fortunate ones who was not forced into the pass/fail option due to their stay-at-home situation. I was privileged enough to have strong Wi-Fi and a quiet work environment, which was crucial to learning via Zoom sessions and recorded audio lectures. Some students were uprooted and displaced. Others had to study from home while taking care of children or sharing space with family members. Many students simply did not have the resources to thrive through online learning. Although I persevered through my own challenges and finished the 1L marathon strong, I could not help but feel like some of my peers were forced to run the last half of the race with their shoelaces tied.

Where are you interning this summer?

I am currently interning with a judge in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois. I obtained this internship through JIOP, which provides opportunities to students who are traditionally underrepresented in the legal field. Though my internship has not been what I expected, it has been an invaluable, immersive, and enjoyable experience, nonetheless.

How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected your experience as an intern?

With courthouses and offices closing down due to the pandemic, I was very worried that I would lose my summer internship. I feel very fortunate to still have the opportunity to work in a position that I worked so hard to attain. It has been fascinating to watch how the court and criminal justice systems have adapted to the pandemic. Daily court call has now moved to two to three times per week via teleconference, which enables attorneys, externs, and the judge to call in remotely from their homes. While most inmates have waived their appearances in court, sentencings and other hearings are held over videoconference. The prison deputies set up tablets for inmates to Facetime their attorneys and “appear” in court. It amazes me how patient the judge is when technical difficulties arise.

What do you hope to observe during your internship?

Hopefully, I will have the opportunity to watch a jury trial. In the second week of my externship, the courthouses partially reopened with judges and their staff alternating days on which they come into court. I had the privilege of sitting in on a bench trial for a civil case. Though there are not as many trials happening, I expect to be able to observe a few more bench trials this summer.

What has been your greatest takeaway or favorite part of your experience so far?

My greatest takeaway from this internship so far is the writing and research. The judicial clerks grant interns broad autonomy, which requires us to be independent self-starters—though I do believe this is the case for most judicial externships, remote or in-person. This is the kind of work I personally prefer. Even though we all work individually from home, the judge and the clerks have made a lot of effort to engage with us over Zoom and Facetime. They are busy, yet always accessible for questions. I have gained exposure to many substantive legal topics that I have not yet learned in school, such as the criminal appeals system, criminal procedure, trial advocacy, immigration appeals. I recently drafted a habeas corpus opinion. Prior to that assignment, I had not even known what a habeas corpus petition was. I am very grateful for these opportunities to practice my legal writing and research.

What advice do you have for other interns, clerks, and summer associates who are participating in internships or working during this pandemic period?

Aside from the advice I mentioned earlier for law students, I found it helpful to remain adaptable. Since the public health situation could change very quickly, it is important to be flexible based on the current environment of uncertainty as well as the judge’s and clerks’ schedules. With shortened summer programs and many modified internships, I suggest capitalizing on every opportunity to make a good impression and being proactive. Find opportunities to speak to judges and attorneys, such as reaching out to arrange for virtual networking sessions or informational calls. I would also encourage others in a similar position to, if possible, take advantage of the summer to look for potential job and internships in other states or locales that can be done virtually now, and plan for the fall to be in a good position for studies, the bar exam, and work.

Kristen Chang is an associate with McGuire Woods in Chicago, Illinois. Briana Singson is a judicial extern and J.D. candidate at Northwestern Pritzker School of Law in Aurora, Illinois.

This article originally appeared on the Judicial Intern Opportunity Program page under the Litigation Section of the American Bar Association. All rights reserved. This information or any portion thereof may not be copied or disseminated in any form or by any means or downloaded or stored in an electronic database or retrieval system without the express written consent of the American Bar Association. 

ABA Judicial Intern Opportunity Program The mission of the Judicial Intern Opportunity Program Committee is to provide opportunities to students who are members of racial and ethnic groups that are traditionally underrepresented in the profession, students with disabilities, students who are economically disadvantaged, students who identify themselves as LGBT, and women. JIOP is a program of the ABA Litigation Seciton.