Summer Internships: In the Public Interest, and the Interns’, Too
By Amy SpoonerSept. 22, 2014
One student inspected marijuana dispensaries. Another drafted hearing questions for a senator. A third worked on a project regarding the legality of creating three-parent embryos. From San Francisco to Sierra Leone, and from the nation’s capital to the Colorado State Capitol, students put their lawyering skills to use at a wide variety of organizations.
For the 286 Michigan Law students who embarked on public service internships this past summer, the lessons were as diverse and abundant as the work assignments.
View summer internship photos from the students featured in this story.
Many Michigan Law students use summer internships to help solidify their career goals. After graduation, 3L Patrick Tighe wants to enter politics or work in public policy in his home state of Arizona. As a Michael Dukakis Fellow working for the governor of Colorado, he experienced political life and hot-button issues firsthand. Tighe was part of the Governor’s Marijuana Coordination Office, responsible for helping develop the regulations for legalization of the controversial drug. "It was like Breaking Bad, but legal," he said of his inspection of a dispensary and a cultivating and growing facility. And he said he found the public interest motivating: "I was definitely excited that so many people were talking about the issue. That helped me stay focused, as I knew many of the office’s decisions would be highly watched and analyzed."
Matt McCurdy, also a 3L, wants to pursue a career in environmental law, so his work at the Sierra Club’s San Francisco headquarters provided a glimpse of life in one of the field’s leading nonprofits. McCurdy’s work touched on Sierra Club initiatives nationwide and included research in the areas of coal power plants, fossil fuel exports, and violations of the Clean Water Act. He also presented research findings in front of the organization’s Environmental Law Program staff. "The Sierra Club wants its interns to become better advocates. We wrote plenty, but we were also encouraged to speak with our assigning attorneys and present to the group, which was an excellent experience," he says.
On the opposite coast, 3L John Lin worked for Sen. John McCain’s Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations staff, investigating such issues as high-frequency stock trading and defense contractors. He also helped draft the senator’s statements, letters, and hearing questions, all of which offered the perfect entry into politics for the future Washingtonian. "It’s one thing to see people in these roles and say, 'I’d like to do that,'" said Lin, who hopes to work on Capitol Hill after graduation as a legislative aide or counsel. "It’s quite another to actually work with those people and do the work they do." Lin is no stranger to high-level government assignments; he worked for Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder, '82, prior to law school. But he admits there was a palpable sense of excitement walking with a high-profile senator and former presidential candidate on the way to a hearing. "It was fun to breeze through the building as part of the senator’s entourage. And it was even better to sit behind Sen. McCain in the hearing as he read many of the questions I had helped prepare."
Public sector internships also provide broad exposure to the law, opportunities to compare and contrast experiences with classroom knowledge, and a deeper understanding of complex global issues. "I got to hear civil and criminal cases on an international stage and realized the importance of foreign policy and international collaboration for the common good," Rachel Jankowski said. The 2L spent her summer in London as a Blackstone Legal Intern at the Comment on Reproductive Ethics, where she worked on a project regarding the legality of creating three-parent embryos. She also said her eyes were opened to issues like human trafficking, which is prevalent in Europe. "Someday I want to start an anti-human-trafficking nonprofit. My experience this summer inspired me to get involved and try to help women in these terrible situations." 2L Julie Kornfeld spent her summer immersed in the atrocities of the past at the Document Center of Cambodia, an organization that researches and documents the crimes of the genocide. "I want a career that deals with refugee law and protection," she said. "This summer expanded my geographical knowledge and allowed me to see how international development and transitional justice are performed in southeast Asia and compare these lessons to what I learned working in East Africa before law school."
For 2L Karima Tawfik, the summer was an opportunity to work in an often-overlooked area in transnational law—corporate social responsibility vis-à-vis large-scale land acquisition. She interned with Namati: Innovations in Legal Empowerment in Freetown, Sierra Leone, where she worked in a team to represent landowners and communities whose lands had been "sold" by local political officials to foreign investors without their consent. "These land issues are an ongoing, difficult, and highly contentious part of life in Sierra Leone," she says. "There is a major push to attract investment to bolster the country’s economy. But the communities that are most acutely affected by land deals report a net loss in their wellbeing as a result of low compensation, environmental degradation, and weak mechanisms to enforce corporate social responsibility provisions." As part of the legal representation, she and several colleagues traveled to eastern Sierra Leone to hear directly from landowners and activists contesting the sale of their lands.
All together, the serious and the not-so-serious elements of the summer combined to leave an indelible impact on these lawyers in training. "The best lawyer is informed on all facets of an issue, which is why learning about other countries and their laws is so important for any citizen, but especially any lawyer," said Jankowski. Kornfeld added, "I realized that law school can't teach you everything about everything, but it does teach you legal research and analysis skills that allow you to quickly become an expert in anything."
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