On the job training: Law students reap the benefits of externships with federal judges

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By Debra Talcott
Legal News

Since 2001, the Wolverine Bar Foundation has sponsored a summer externship program for law students with U.S. District Court judges from the Eastern District of Michigan. This summer will be no different, with 19 students looking forward to supervised practice away from their various law schools with leaders in the legal community.

U.S. District Judge Victoria Roberts started the program as a way to expand federal clerkship opportunities for minority students.

“I remember applying for a federal clerkship myself in 1975, and the only interest in my application came from black judges,” says Roberts. “Thirty-five years later, we are still trying to change that dynamic and expand both opportunities and interest. There are so many qualified and worthy students who simply need a door open for them.”

The program teaches skills that will help these students compete in the tough job market upon graduation. It provides an important opportunity for students who might not otherwise have gained such real-world experience.

Three students who participated in last year’s program are Bonsitu Kitaba and Brittany Bradshaw of Wayne State University Law School and Callana Davis of Cooley Law School. These fine students can attest to the benefits of a summer judicial externship and the role it can play in their future careers.

Bonsitu Kitaba grew up in Mississauga, Ontario,  and earned her undergraduate degree from the University of Toronto. 

“My origin as an Oromo-Guyanese descendant inspired me to pursue a career in the law,” Kitaba says. “The experiences of both my parents as immigrants to Canada and the everyday struggles I see minorities around the world face, sparked within me the desire to practice international law.  It is within the law where I believe that the greatest change could occur for immigrant and minority rights to be wholly realized and respected. I hope to be a part of this change upon graduation from law school.”

A researcher and oralist for the 2012-13 Jessup International Moot Court team at Wayne Law, Kitaba was ranked 35th individually out of the top 100 oralists in the international round competition in Washington, D.C.  Her team earned a rank of 18th in the world in that same competition.

As a member of Wayne Law’s Moot Court team, Kitaba received awards for the Best Individual Appellate, Best Team Appellate Advocate, and second place Individual Appellate Brief.

Kitaba considers herself fortunate to have spent her summer clerkship with Judge Nancy Edmunds.  She reported to the U.S. District Court in downtown Detroit, where she worked 30 hours a week over 4 days for the month of August.  Kitaba reported directly to clerk Theresa Serra.

“As an intern, I was responsible for researching case law pertaining to several federal claims that could potentially be litigated in Judge Edmunds’ court.  I would receive complaints from parties on both sides and research the cases cited and the strength of the arguments made. Then, I would be responsible for drafting a memorandum which would encapsulate the summary of the parties’ arguments as well as where the
case law stood on the issue to be decided.”

Kitaba also learned by observing Judge Edmunds´ motion hearings, sentencing hearings, and a portion of a trial.

“One of the main lessons I’ve learned from Judge Edmunds is to be, as much as possible, a sharp and thorough advocate. Once I become a lawyer, I will always aim to remember that solid quality writing, coupled with an organized and thorough understanding of my client’s case, will help me excel as an advocate.”

Kitaba, who expects to graduate in May 2014, learned a great deal from her observations of people at work in the judicial system and from her own research.

“The memory I will most take from the experience is sitting down to lunch every day and learning about how the courthouse operates and the experiences Judge Edmunds has had the privilege to witness and be a part of.  It is incredibly worthwhile to get to intern in federal court with one of the esteemed judges we have here in Detroit,” says Kitaba.

Likewise, Brittany Bradshaw encourages others to apply for the judicial externship program. 

“It was an invaluable experience on an academic level because I strengthened my research and writing skills and on a personal level because I met many great people,” says Bradshaw.

Bradshaw, who is also on track to earn her J.D. in May 2014, was placed in the office of Judge Arthur Tarnow.  She worked a full 40-hour, 5-day week in his chambers.

“Typically, I researched and discussed the law with the clerks and Judge Tarnow on several issues, wrote orders and memos, performed jurisdiction checks, and attended trials and hearings.  Attending one of Judge Tarnow’s trials from jury selection to the verdict was my best experience of the summer.  It was awesome to witness the entire process.”

Bradshaw grew up in Jackson and earned her undergraduate degree from the University of Michigan. She credits her 13-year-old niece, Nayzygh, for inspiring her to pursue a career in the law.

“I want to show her that with hard work and dedication, she can do anything,” says Bradshaw.

This year Bradshaw serves as an associate editor for Wayne’s Journal of Law in Society, and she looks forward to serving as Executive Article Editor for the publication next year.  She is also secretary of the university’s Black Law Students Association.

Cooley Law School student Callana Davis also participated in the summer program. Born and raised in Detroit, Davis knew from the time she was a child that she wanted to become an attorney.  After earning her undergraduate degree from Michigan State University, she now looks forward to earning her J.D. from Cooley in December 2014.

Davis thinks she was chosen for the judicial externship program because of her prior participation in the Wolverine Bar Association 1L Summer Associate Program, her academic achievement, and her leadership.  She worked last summer at Butzel Long as part of the 1L Summer Associate Program and has been asked back for a second summer this year.  She has remained on the honor roll and dean’s list since her first term in 2011, and she serves as academic chair of the Black Law Students Association at Cooley.

“I was given the opportunity to be a part of this program, and it has truly changed my life,” says Davis. “The stipend helped me with the expenses that come along with working, and it truly was a beneficial experience as I got to meet judges as well as attorneys.  Those relationships, especially as a new attorney, are invaluable to have. Also, you get to learn the process of filing and how the entire system works so when you graduate you have some sense of what is expected.” 

She was assigned to the chambers of Judge Denise Page Hood, where she worked approximately 35 hours per week. 

“One key lesson I learned was to take part in as many cases as I could. I had an opportunity to complete jurisdiction checks as well as work on judicial orders. The most valuable lesson I took away is that it is paramount to listen to the parties in a case so that you can grant the proper remedy or sentence. Having lunch with the Judge was another great experience because we had the opportunity to bond and get to know one another. Also, sitting in on a criminal trial from start to finish really changed my mind about criminal procedure,” says Davis.

The important opportunities these promising students of color have experienced could not be provided without the fundraising efforts of the Wolverine Bar Foundation. Students receive stipends of $1,500 to compensate them for what they might have earned had they worked a summer job in lieu of participating in the program.

“There are no administrative fees or expenses, and all of the dollars contributed go directly to the students,” says Associate Dean John Nussbaumer of Cooley Law School’s Auburn Hills campus, who leads the fund-raising efforts. Nussbaumer is hard at work on the committee’s fund-raising goal of $28,500 to cover expenses for the coming summer.

“So far,” says Dean Nussbaumer, “we have raised $20,250 thanks to the generosity of 11 law firms, corporations, and State Bar Sections. These include Miller Canfield at the Platinum Level ($5,000+), Dickinson Wright, General Motors, Plunkett Cooney, and Warner Norcross at the Gold Level ($2,500+), Collins Einhorn, Honigman, Jaffe Raitt, and the State Bar Appellate Practice Section at the Silver Level ($1,000+), and Butzel Long and Lewis and Munday at the Bronze Level ($0-$999). We very much appreciate their support.”

Dean Nussbaumer says the Foundation needs to raise an additional $8,250 to be able to fund all of the students selected for the program this year.  All contributors will be recognized at the Wolverine Bar Association - Association of Black Judges of Michigan Presidents Reception in June.

“Firms, corporations, or individuals interested in donating can contact me directly at nussbauj@cooley.edu or at 248-520-4772.  We need students like these to help change the face of our profession to look more like the increasingly diverse clients whom we serve.”
 

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