Career track: Externship program helps grads land jobs

By Debra Talcott

Legal News

For three Cooley--Auburn Hills graduates, life after law school has turned out just fine, thank you.

Emil Semaan enjoys his work in Macomb County's Circuit Court Division, where he handles felonies in the General Crimes Unit. Former classmates John Gemellaro and Suzanna Shkreli work as assistant prosecuting attorneys in the Macomb County District Court Division.

What these three graduates have in common, besides talent and strong work ethic, was their participation in Cooley's externship program with the Macomb County Prosecutor's Office and an education geared toward practical knowledge.

Cooley's externship program with the office of Macomb County Prosecutor Eric J. Smith was started in 2007. Since that time, two to six students have been placed in his office nearly every term. To date, 53 students have been accepted to and have benefitted from the experience of being assigned an attorney mentor, under whose supervision they work on cases in district and circuit courts.

"It is an excellent way to gain real litigation experience as well as assist the prosecutor's office with their workload," says Assistant Dean Lisa Halushka, who is one of the Cooley professors that teach the classroom component of the externship. "The students basically act as though they were licensed assistant prosecutors, engaging in plea negotiations, felony preliminary examinations, bench and jury trials, and sentencing hearings. They begin appearing in court, on the record, from nearly the first day of their externship experience."

In order to be eligible to participate in the program, students must have taken courses in Criminal Law, Criminal Procedure, Evidence, and Professional Responsibility. The Trial Skills class and some Mock Trial competition experience are helpful but not mandatory. Students then submit a résumé and cover letter to the office as though they were applying for a regular position.

"Students whose résumés pass muster are then interviewed in a real job setting interview session with a faculty member and a representative of the Prosecutor's Office, generally Mr. Jim Langtry. If selected, Mr. Langtry pairs them with the APA mentors. The students have close interaction with and receive feedback from their mentors, who supervise them in court every day," Halushka explains.

Students also meet two hours a week in the classroom, where they are taught by a professor experienced in criminal law.

"The classroom portion includes substantive legal instruction, simulation, and role play exercises and case rounds where we review their field experiences and give feedback and instruction on how they might learn from past performance and improve their future performance," says Halushka.

"My professors were experienced and knowledgeable in their fields, and being taught by them put me a step ahead of graduates from other law schools," says Semaan, who volunteered as an intern in all the Macomb courts with all the prosecutors. When there was an opening, he was offered an assistant prosecuting attorney position. Recently, he moved into his position with the General Crimes Unit and has celebrated winning his first capital felony trial.

A former teacher in the Detroit Public Schools, Semaan was a full time student in Cooley's accelerated program. His externship was under the supervision of Erika Breitfeld, who was the assistant prosecutor in Macomb County's district courts. While in the program, Semaan gained experience in preliminary exams, bench and jury trials, motion hearings, pleading files, counseling victims, and running a docket. He also trained in the Circuit Court and has continued his duties there.

"As an assistant prosecutor in the general unit, I am currently assigned to the Circuit Court," says Semaan. "I continue all the same duties I had as an extern, but now I can sign my name to motions and pleas."

Semaan says the best parts of his job are being in court, arguing the law, and seeing justice done.

"But the worst part is seeing the pain--both physical and mental--of the victims and realizing that even after the case is done and the sentence is rendered, the victims still have to live with the crime for the rest of their lives."

Semaan is quick to credit Cooley and the externship program for preparing him for his work.

"I actually advise friends and former students to pursue a career in the law. I recommend Cooley because of the practical knowledge gained, the caliber of the academic staff, and the preparation Cooley gave me to practice in a professional setting. I advise future students to make use of the various volunteer and legal internships afforded through Cooley. I also recommend an externship at either the prosecutor's office or the criminal defender's office. Those experiences will give the most preparation for practicing law."

Like Semaan, John Gemellaro was a full time student at Cooley. After graduating in May 2010, Gemellaro took the July bar exam and was sworn in on October 28, 2010--a date he remembers well because it coincides with the birthday of his father, who was the one who encouraged him to go to law school.

Gemellaro calls his externship experience under the supervision of Erika Breitfeld and Gordon Hosbein "amazing."

"My experience completely bridged the gap between learning the law and practicing law," Gemellaro says. "Seeing how the law is applied and being able to handle a jury trial before graduating exposed me to the practicality and real challenges of what it is to be a lawyer; it rounded out my law school experience and gave me focus going forward."

As a district court prosecutor, Gemellaro handles plea negotiations, trials, evidentiary hearings, motions, and felony preliminary examinations.

"The best part of the job is being able to handle cases and advocate for victims in the courtroom while ensuring that the interests of justice are satisfied as well," says Gemellaro. "The worst part of the job is seeing the victims of crimes--and sometimes the accused--deal with the aftermath of the criminal charges. You wish you could help them all, all of the time, but you can't, and sometimes it's tough to swallow."

Gemellaro says he went to law school thinking he would graduate and work in commercial construction, but his experience at Cooley introduced him to other facets of the law.

"The law school experience, particularly the way Cooley addresses and interacts with its students, opened doors to other areas that I hadn't considered. I became engaged in criminal law and procedure, and in evidence class I found I was more comfortable in a courtroom litigating than I had ever thought possible. Cooley's focus on a more practical legal scholarship and 'hands on' approach enhanced my law school experience and pushed me to excel."

Gemellaro says his experience at Cooley and his participation in the Macomb County externship program were excellent preparation for the position he now holds.

"Once I got sworn in, I was able to hit the ground running because I knew what to expect from the courts and criminal system, and I knew what was expected of me. Cooley's externship program was the most valuable asset I had upon entering the practice of law because of the opportunities and experience it gave me."

Suzanna Shkreli echoes the high praise of the externship experience given by her former fellow students.

"On a scale of 1 to 10, I would rate my experience at the Macomb County Prosecutor's Office at 10. I am grateful to Dean Lisa Halushka, Chief of Operations James Langtry, and, of course, Prosecutor Eric Smith for creating and maintaining such a wonderful externship program which, consequently, led me to my current position."

As an assistant prosecuting attorney, Shkreli enjoys being in court and interacting with victims.

"It's fulfilling to know that what you do on a regular basis makes a positive impact on the community. The Macomb County Prosecutor's Office is filled with quality individuals who work hard and put only their best forward."

A few of those individuals with whom Shkreli worked during her externship include Erika Breitfeld, who is now a full-time professor at Cooley, and Assistant Prosecuting Attorneys Dana Goldberg and Nicole Blank.

While Shkreli has worked hard to form relationships within the prosecutor's office, she is quickly on her way to becoming connected to the community outside of the office as well. Two of her favorite organizations to support are the Macomb County Warming Shelter and St. Jude Children's Research Hospital.

"What I admire most about these three graduates is their perseverance," says Cooley - Auburn Hills Campus Dean John Nussbaumer. "When they first graduated, they did not have jobs waiting for them. But all of them found a way to get to their current positions, some by starting their own practices, and some by volunteering their services at the prosecutor's office--in effect playing their way onto the team, much like a walk-on college athlete."

Nussbaumer also praises Macomb County Prosecutor Smith and Chief of Operations Langtry for partnering with Cooley on this program.

"This externship not only provides our students with a great practical learning opportunity, it also provides the prosecutor's office with additional resources that can help 'stretch' the taxpayers' dollars further for the people of Macomb County."

"Our partnership with Cooley is unique," says Prosecutor Smith. "Cooley does an excellent job providing its students with the necessary tools to be successful trial attorneys, and we help fine tune them in a courtroom setting. Watching an extern handle actual cases in the courtroom gives us a great opportunity to assess their trial skills firsthand. We learn more about their abilities than what can be gained in a 30-minute interview. Emil, John, and Suzanna stood out, and I'm glad to have them as part of my team."

Published: Thu, Dec 29, 2011