University of Virginia General Counsel’s Office

We continue our look at our third year curriculum’s actual practice requirement with a post from AJ Frey. Last semester, AJ worked for the General Counsel’s Office at the University of Virginia. Below are AJ’s thoughts on the experience:

When it came time for me to begin the search for my “actual practice” component of the third year program, I was underwhelmed. I hoped to undertake an off-campus externship, ideally with the general counsel’s office of a private company, to see what the day-to-day practice of being part of an in-house counsel team was like. After talking with Ms. Hilton and Dean Natkin, it became clear that the options within a reasonable distance of Lexington for in-house counsel work were, to put it gently, limited.

However, despite the lack of obvious in-house opportunities nearby, I was encouraged by Ms. Hilton and Dean Natkin’s enthusiasm and confidence in my ability to find an externship that met my expectations. Never once did either of them tell me to find a different path or give up on the idea of working in-house. During the spring semester of my 2L year, Dean Natkin introduced me to the idea of working at the University of Virginia General Counsel’s Office. Having placed a student there the year before, she was confident that the office would happily work with a W&L extern again.

The idea appealed to me on many levels. I grew up in Charlottesville and earned my undergraduate degree from UVa, so I was excited for the opportunity to get back to Charlottesville a few times a week. I also knew that I might conceivably want to return to Charlottesville one day, and knowing as many people as possible in the Charlottesville and UVa legal communities seemed like it would be beneficial. Dean Natkin really sold me on the idea by explaining that the work done by the General Counsel’s office at UVa would be similar in many ways to the kind of work done by a large corporation, with the added benefit of exposure to interesting higher-education law issues.

I was selected for a fall semester general externship (a classmate of mine, Anna Knecht, will be taking over from me and working for the office in the spring semester). Going into my first day of work at the beginning of the school year, I had no idea what to expect. Now, with the semester over, and my work at UVa completed, I can confidently say that my time at the General Counsel’s office exceeded all expectations and taught me more in the way of substantive law practice than any experience in my legal education thus far.

The richness of experience in my externship was partially a matter of luck and good timing. I began the externship as UVa was in the thick of litigation that has been making national and international headlines and has huge implications for both students and teachers in U.S. higher education.

UVa has been the target of two lawsuits—one brought by the Attorney General of Virginia; one brought by a political action group—seeking to compel the University to disclose the emails, correspondence, notes, papers, and unpublished research of Dr. Michael Mann, a prominent climate scientist who had previously been employed by UVa. Dr. Mann’s most famous scientific theory is the “hockey stick” model of climate change—a graph that shows the Earth’s temperature rising slowly for most of its history and then shooting up suddenly as the Industrial Revolution happened, hence the “hockey stick” shape. The model, while accepted by most climate scientists, has been challenged by climate skeptics—those who dispute the phenomenon of climate change and the notion that humans may be causing it. After a leak from the University of East Anglia in 2009 of thousands of emails between climate scientists (including Dr. Mann), some climate skeptics became concerned that scientists were falsifying data in an attempt to make a better case for manmade climate change. (The East Anglia emails were subsequently found to contain no falsification of data or findings.)

The suits that UVa now faces are a direct result of that email leak. They seek to compel UVa to disclose to the public thousands of documents and personal work papers of Dr. Mann’s in an effort to continue the climate skeptics’ campaign to personally discredit climate scientists who are connected to the East Anglia emails.

As the sole extern in the General Counsel’s office this semester, I got to work closely with the team of lawyers coordinating UVa’s defenses to these suits. For UVa, these suits are about much more than the underlying scientific issues or the privacy of a single professor. The University believes that these suits threaten the core values of academic freedom upon which the American system of higher education is built. Much of my time this semester was spent researching the topic of academic freedom and writing briefs and memoranda explaining why the University should not be compelled to disclose the proprietary notes, correspondence, and unpublished research of its professors. My work gave me a deep appreciation for the values at stake in this litigation and offered me plenty of substantive practice in drafting and legal research.

Ultimately, I had the privilege of traveling with the UVa team to Manassas to argue part of our case in state court. The research and writing that I did went directly into the University’s brief, and it was a thrilling experience to hear legal points argued that I had a hand in drafting.

My externship at UVa gave me the opportunity to do meaningful work on an issue that I have come to care strongly about. It’s the kind of opportunity that I hoped would be a part of the W&L third year program, and I can now confirm that the externship element of the program met and exceeded my expectations. I learned a lot, both practically and substantively, and thanks to my mentors and supervisors at both W&L and UVa, I am better prepared for the challenges that face me as I transition out of law school and into law practice.

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