Grants Help Students Gain Essential Experience at Unpaid Internships

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Every time someone walks in the door at Pisgah Legal Services, Samuel Williams ’15 knows something terrible has happened. An unexpected job loss, an unwanted diagnosis, and life for those on the brink of poverty begins to spiral into crisis mode with a foreclosure notice or an eviction order. During his summer as an intern at the free civil legal aid law firm in Asheville, N.C., the rising 2L has learned, “All anyone ever wants is a fair shot, and you can’t get one without an attorney.”

Williams is one of 85 first- and second-year law students at UNC to receive between $1,000 and $3,000 through UNC School of Law’s Public Interest Summer Grant program. The grants offset expenses for students interning at government agencies or nonprofits. While many law schools have a grant program to help students who choose internships in public service over paid summer associate positions at private law firms, UNC is unique in the generous amount it contributes, about five to 10 times the amount of its peer schools, according to Sylvia Novinsky, the assistant dean for public service programs.

Novinsky says funding comes from a combination of money students raise through their organizations (the largest being held by the Carolina Public Interest Law Organization), donations from alumni and, most significantly, funds earmarked by UNC School of Law Dean Jack Boger ’74 for student supplemental learning.

Prior to the economic meltdown of 2008, UNC gave out about 25 grants per summer. But the legal field changed after 2008, Novinsky said. Private firms cut back on summer hiring, yet students still needed hands-on practice of marketable, transferable legal skills they could use in permanent employment. In response, Boger ratcheted up the school’s contribution to the grants, more than tripling the number of students who could participate. As the economy slowly recovers, the law school is maintaining enough grant funding to open dozens of students to very different worlds.

Public interest work “gets students out of the law school bubble,” Novinsky said. “It’s valuable for students to see the need, hear people’s problems and understand what the law can do to help.”

At Pisgah Legal Services, Williams has gone to clients’ homes to document habitability issues, drafted responses to complaints and crafted counter-complaints, and researched legal issues. “Everything we do is so important,” he said, “because everyone needs help right now. I get to fight bad guys every day.”

For 2L Kathleen Lockwood, working in New York City for the organization Advocates for Justice goes beyond experiencing what it’s like to work as a lawyer every day, drafting complaints and petitions and doing legal research. The internship has provided networking opportunities and affirmed her desire to work in New York after she graduates.

“The internship has enabled me to think seriously about that option and given me the courage to follow through with it, too,” she said.

Justin Reimer, a 3L interning at the Wake County District Attorney’s office, can appear in court on misdemeanor cases under the supervision of an experienced attorney.

“You’re getting immediate feedback from a judge and attorneys,” Reimer said. “It is invaluable.”

He grew up in Raleigh but has a close-up view of a side of life he didn’t have much connection with before. With a court docket of nearly a hundred cases each morning, Reimer sees the gamut of humanity, both victims and defendants, from the repentant to the entitled. He has learned a more nuanced perspective than just good guys and bad guys.

“You hear that prosecutors care only about the numbers, wanting to win as many cases as they can,” he said. “That hasn’t been my observation in Wake County at all. A lot of consideration goes into each case. You see firsthand how people are affected by their own choices and the decisions of others and the laws of our state. It has given me compassion.

“At the end of the day, everyone deserves a day in court.”

Belal Elrahal, a 3L at the Mecklenburg County Public Defender’s Office, represents defendants who can’t afford to make the legal process easy. Before taking the internship, he thought a lot about “the stigma that we’re defending guilty people,” he said.

Once on the job, he realized his focus was on working with people for whom the process of being charged and defending themselves was a crisis in itself.

“It’s not about getting someone off a speeding ticket or a DWI,” he said. His clients struggle to take time off work to go to the arraignment and their court date. Living below the poverty line, they’re dealing with one crisis after the next. If they miss a court date, they get arrested and lose their job.

“This is totally outside of whether or not they’ve committed the act they’ve been charged with,” he said. “We’re dealing with an innocent person until they’ve been proven guilty.”

This summer he has interviewed clients and witnesses, negotiated plea deals and learned better caseload management skills. He has developed on-the-spot adaptability, when an arresting officer doesn’t show up, or a scared client arrives drunk. His work with clients, none of whom want to be in the position of needing a defense attorney, has enabled him to help reroute potential trouble, getting people involved with Alcoholics Anonymous or connected with Child Protective Services.

Elrahal’s internship has solidified his belief that a career in law means he can make a difference.

“The attorneys I’m working with are top-notch,” he said. “They could be earning two or three times as much at a private law firm, but they’re dedicating themselves to this work instead. That has given me hope. The work we do has an impact on the community beyond the resolution of cases.”

The experiences of these students underscores why Boger dedicates such a generous sum to public interest internship grants.

“This is extremely valuable experience that can’t be fully duplicated in the classroom,” he said. “Students don’t always understand just how much they’ve learned and how much of a difference they can make in someone’s life.”

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-July 25, 2013

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