Pinpoint the Point of a Judicial Internship
First, it is important to consider the point of doing a judicial internship. Working with a judge may seem like it is all about prestige, but that should play no part in determining whether a judicial internship is right for you. In reality, you should do a judicial internship because you will learn more about the law in just a few short weeks than you possibly could in law school. You can study the structure of the courts and their jurisdiction all you want, but it won’t ever make sense until you observe the beautiful chaos that is the judiciary. Even if you never intend to step foot in a courtroom, the law does not exist in a black box: court decisions will affect you in one way or another—a court will make decisions with or without you—and a judicial internship shows you exactly how judges reach the decisions that they do. Hence, a judicial internship will inevitably make you a better lawyer.
Landing That Internship
But after you’ve decided to do an internship, how do you get the job?
Personality will help you more than grades. You may think that it is impossible to get an internship if your 1L grades weren’t what you hoped they would be, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. Many judges are looking for people that they are going to like working with, not somebody who spent more time studying than learning how to work with peers. That isn’t to say that your grades don’t matter at all—you should use law school as an opportunity to learn all that you can, and as long as you’re doing that, you will come out exactly how you were meant to in the end.
The true secret to landing an internship is to understand the judge as a person. Know the judge’s career; know the judge’s interests; and, more importantly, know how your interests align. You can use that to write the perfect cover letter in which you can grab the judge’s interest from the very beginning. This will increase the likelihood that you land an interview, which is all that is needed to show the judge how brilliant you are and how much the judge wants to work with you.
Interviews vary from judge to judge. Many interviews tend to be very informal. You may not be asked any substantive questions about the law, but you are guaranteed to be asked about your general interest in it. Find what gives you a unique connection to the law and root all of your answers to that main connection. Setting yourself apart is the main goal—and when you succeed, you’re likely to get an offer.
Face Your Fear
But after you’ve secured your dream internship and the panic sets in, what should you expect on your first day of work? Your first day may very well be the scariest day of your life.
In short, the feeling you will have on your first day can be summarized by the following: You think you know how to read? You don’t. You think you know how to write? You don’t.
But that’s OK. Your judge didn’t pick you because you were the most brilliant legal mind of our generation; the judge picked you because they thought you had the potential to be. So just buckle up and enjoy the ride: you aren’t expected to know how to do anything at all; you’re just expected to give your best effort and learn from the judge’s guidance.
On your first day you will probably be introduced to the clerks, the judge, and some of the surrounding chambers. You’ll be given a brief introduction on what the court does and how it sits in relation to other courts. You’ll probably be given some guides (i.e., style, citations, formatting, etc.) and be expected to read them before beginning anything. Make sure you read them! There are almost certainly variances between your chambers and The Bluebook.
Shortly after, you’ll be given your first assignment. This could be a cert memo, a research question, case briefs, etc. Whatever it is, it will feel like the most obscure legal question that has ever been asked. Most importantly, you will feel like you couldn’t answer it if you had all the time in the world. But that’s the imposter syndrome speaking; nobody can answer these sorts of questions the first time they look at them. They require you to begin researching and come to a reasonable conclusion. Just take it one step at a time, case by case, source by source; then you will have the finished product before you know it, and you will realize how much smarter you are for having done it.
Understand the Value of a Willingness to Learn
But, what if you have no experience with the type of project you’ve been given? Your ability to do your job doesn’t rely on what law school you go to, your background, or what you want to do in the future. All that matters is your willingness to learn in the present.
You will be dealing with a broad range of cases and there is no telling when a familiar case type will arise. Thus, most of what you do will be entirely unfamiliar to you, so there is no shame in not knowing something. It is just part of the research process. Again, starting is the only way to make progress. All that is required of you is that you take the job seriously. You aren’t going to be able to answer substantive legal questions if you’re slacking off and don’t care about the work you’re doing.
Know Your Strengths and Weaknesses
With that being said, you will also have a much more fruitful time in your internship if you know your strengths and weaknesses.
While this is true for any job, it is especially true for judicial internships. By knowing your strengths (such as concise writing), you can focus on improving your weaknesses (case analysis, for example). This is also extremely helpful because the first time you get feedback, it will probably be more substantive than anything you have received to date. If you are aware of your weaknesses at that point, it is easier to focus on improving rather feeling discouraged. You can’t expect to grow and learn if you don’t allow yourself to go through the process.
This feedback process, inevitably, will vary from judge to judge.
Recognize That the Judge Makes the Difference
Along those lines, while any judicial internship that you secure will be a great experience, it is important to note that the judge for whom you work makes a difference.
All judges are brilliant in their own right, but not every judge will be right for you. Some judges are busier than others, some are more hands-on with your projects, and some will vary depending on the week! Naturally, this will depend on the type of court you end up in, but it does vary from judge to judge even within the same court.
This is another reason it is important to know your strengths and weaknesses. You have to find a judge who meshes with your learning style. Questions regarding the judge’s mentorship style/abilities are therefore perfect questions to ask during an interview. Don’t forget to ask the judge’s clerks the same question—you will be working a lot with them too!
Similarly, it may be useful for BIPOC (Black, indigenous, and people of color) students to apply to BIPOC judges who understand the unique struggles they will face in their lives. This eases many of the already excessive pressures that are placed upon lawyers of color. Naturally, having a judge that looks like you isn’t a surefire bet, but a quick look at the judge’s track record (using your brilliant legal research skills) will let you know whether you are making the right choice.
Network, Network, Network
Once you start to settle into your new job, you’ll realize that you are surrounded by some of the most brilliant people you’ve ever met (clerks, judges, staff attorneys, co-interns, and building staff). They fully expect that you will talk to them about their careers and aspirations. Nothing career related is off-limits, so take advantage! Just make sure that you are respectful of their busy schedules.
Of course, talking to somebody for the first time is one of the most intimidating parts of any new social setting. But it is useful to know that everyone will appreciate you for being the first to break the social silence—everybody finds it as hard as you do no matter how many times they’ve done it. You can just ask a simple question or ask a group of people to lunch. Just stay professional above all else.
Additionally, you should make sure that the impression you leave is a positive one. Specifically regarding your co-interns, remember that you aren’t competing with them. In fact, you often won’t have any idea what they’re working on, especially if they are with another judge’s chambers. So, being anything but supportive and friendly is pointless. Plus, being nice to people pays off, especially because you will be working with these people many times throughout your professional career, regardless of what form that takes.
It goes without saying that you should also treat your judge and clerks with respect. They are well established in the legal community, and your actions will have far-reaching consequences.
Equally as important are your actions outside of court. You represent the court even when you aren’t present, and the quickest way to earn the distrust of the court is to talk about what happens in chambers. Therefore, what happens in chambers stays in chambers.
This is a very simple rule. Courts require a certain level of anonymity to function, and you will be tasked with upholding the integrity of the court while you are an intern. This is a lot of responsibility and should not be taken lightly. Do not disclose anything about how your judge acts in chambers, do not take materials out of the court, do not do anything that could harm the public’s image of the court. What happens in chambers stays in chambers.
Agree to Disagree
This will become extraordinarily difficult at times, such as when you learn that you will almost certainly have to write about things with which you disagree as if they are a universal truth. You will want to discuss these instances with friends because of how frustrating they are, but you must refrain.
One of the harsh realities of working with the law is the fact that you will have to argue points with which you fundamentally disagree. You may have to write an opinion and argue against yourself, do research for your judge that involves looking at cases through a lens that requires reaching the opposite conclusion that you have reached, etc. This is a humbling experience, a terrifying experience, and an opportunity for growth all at the same time. You quickly begin to realize that perspective itself is a beautiful part of the common law and that you can disagree while still seeing the validity of your judge’s opinion.
Focus on the Law over Self
This important feeling leads to another realization: this isn’t about you; this is about the development of the law.
The law is bigger than any of us. It is important to remember the grandiosity of the work we do to remind ourselves of why every project that we do should be one of our best. We could be contributing to some of the most important legal issues of our generation; but even if we aren’t, we are making our mark on the law in some way, shape, or form.
Be Mindful of Biases
Understanding that, we must be mindful about the biases we carry. Naturally, when you work in a court, you are bound to encounter important discussions of bias. Before starting your job, you should understand into which of the three camps of bias you fall. The first camp thinks that we should have no bias at all when we work with the law. While this view tends to ignore the realities of the human experience, it is certainly a valid goal to work toward. Having this view will require you to be deeply aware of your biases and then offset them in the manner that the particular assignment requires. The second camp says that we should understand our biases and work to fix them. This recognizes that biases aren’t just switches that can be turned on and off. Rather, they are the result of lived experiences and reflections that are impacted by the work that we do every day. This view will require that you constantly ask yourself whether you are letting any of your biases affect the way you approach an assignment. If you are, you must consider how you can move forward knowing that those biases are affecting your judgment. The third camp suggests that we all have biases that give us a unique understanding of the law. This view concedes that many of our biases are unknowable to us and therefore unchangeable, but these biases are what contribute to differing interpretations of legal issues. Therefore, even though it is important to acknowledge the biases that are identifiable, the unseen biases are what make us unique and make the law interesting.
Understanding which of these frameworks resonates with you will inform the way you think through issues, so it is imperative that you understand you own biases and how they will affect the work that you submit to your judge. Being able to fundamentally alter the way that we think has powerful implications on our abilities as future lawyers, so if you feel that your biases require adjustment, then make it your goal to figure out how best to do so.
Regardless of the choices and mistakes you make along the way, your internship will be one of the best experiences of your life. You will get to see cases start to finish and will play a part in deciding important issues. These insights will have incredible effects on your legal career. Every soon-to-be lawyer should therefore consider doing a judicial internship.
Eric Quintana-Snyder is a student at the University of Minnesota Law School.