Judicial Externship Program

We continue our look at our third year curriculum’s actual practice requirement with a post from two of our students who participated last semester in our Judicial Externship Program, Lauren Meehan and Mallory Sullivan.

Here are Lauren’s thought on her experience:

Challenging and rewarding are two words I would use to describe my judicial externship experience. For my “actual practice” requirement, I am fortunate enough to have the opportunity to extern for the Honorable James C. Turk of the Western District of Virginia.  Judge Turk is a federal judge located in Roanoke, Virginia.  I was selected from a group of third year students who applied for the judicial externship program as a placement option in the third-year program.

As an intern, I assist both of the law clerks, the Pro Se Clerk, and Judge Turk by researching issues and writing draft opinions.  The cases I have been assigned include Social Security issues, prisoner habeas petitions, civil procedure and jurisdiction issues, patent cases, and criminal and tort cases.

As noted above, one of my cases was a habeas petition.  This case was uniquely complicated because all of the documents were handwritten by the prisoner.  Most of them were difficult to read and understand.  It was important, however, to carefully sift through the file and to understand to the best of my ability the claims the petitioner was bringing in his case.  Once I had an understanding of the claims, I had to research the standard of review and discuss the issues with the Pro Se law clerk before I could begin drafting an opinion. Pro Se law clerks are usually career clerks who research issues and draft opinions for judge’s with cases before them where the individual plaintiffs or defendants are representing themselves.  In working on this case, I really had a sense of how important my role was in ensuring that this person’s constitutional right to petition a court was upheld.

Occasionally, I also observe Court hearings which is always exciting and a welcome break from research and writing.  Working at the federal level has opened my eyes to the complications and intricacies of each case and deepened my appreciation for the different standard of review for federal courts.  Reading the briefs and motions submitted to the court, as well as the writing assignments and the critiques I received from the law clerks, has made me a more proficient and organized writer. Also, discussing the complex details of the cases with the law clerks and listening to their critiques of my work has been a very helpful learning opportunity. In general, this externship provided me with the opportunity to work with people with very different personalities who all have their own unique writing styles and preferences, and I feel more confident in my abilities and I am excited for next year.

Here are Mallory’s thoughts on her experience:

One component of W&L’s third year program is that students participate in an actual practice experience in a professional legal setting.  Out of the many clinics and externships offered, I chose to participate in the judicial externship program.  My year-long placement is with Senior Justice Lawrence L. Koontz, Jr. on the Supreme Court of Virginia.  Senior Justice Koontz has served at every level of Virginia’s judicial system (District, Circuit, Court of Appeals, and Supreme Court) and took senior status with the Supreme Court of Virginia a year ago.

Mallory SullivanNot surprisingly, the position is very reading, research, and writing intensive.  Much like the U.S. Supreme Court, which only accepts select cases to hear, the Virginia Supreme Court also chooses which cases to hear.  One of my major tasks is reading the petitions for appeal, researching applicable law, and preparing a memorandum that succinctly summarizes the facts and law and recommends whether the Court should accept or deny the petition.  At the writ stage, you don’t consider the underlying merit of the case; it doesn’t matter which party should have won, or why.  Instead, you decide if your Justice should vote to hear the case.  Typical reasons to grant an appeal are that the case addresses a novel issue of law or to resolve a split in the lower courts.  If the Court believes a lower court misinterpreted the law, the case is only heard if the error was material.  If the outcome would have been the same, the error is “harmless,” and the appeal is denied.

One of the things I’ve enjoyed about my externship is that you are exposed to many areas of the law.  I’ve worked on cases involving evidentiary issues, zoning disputes, corporate law, insurance coverage, the constitutionality of resumed police interrogation after waiver of counsel, and the civil commitment of a sexually violent predator.  In addition to learning about substantive law, I’ve also learned a lot about procedural law.  Many cases that are appealed to the Virginia Supreme Court are denied or dismissed for a procedural reason, such as the trial attorney not preserving an issue for appeal.

While the Virginia Supreme Court sits in Richmond, Justice Koontz’s day-to-day office is in Salem, a quaint town about an hour south of Lexington.  I travel to Salem once a week and to Richmond instead when the court is in session.  In addition to hearing oral arguments for cases that have been accepted for review, oral argument is also allowed at the preliminary writ stage by the party who is seeking the appeal.  After oral arguments conclude, the Justices discuss the cases.  The Justices have allowed me to sit in when they discuss which writs to accept, which has given me great insight into the judicial decision-making process.

As an editor on Law Review, I’ve done a lot of writing throughout law school.  However, the clerkship has taught me how to write for a professional, as opposed to purely academic, setting.  I’ve been exposed to a broad array of legal issues and am more familiar with the judicial process and the factors that influence whether appeals are granted.  After graduation, I hope to clerk for a year, so my experience has been invaluable in giving me a glimpse of what to expect.

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