May 24, 2021 Article

Unprecedented Times to the New Normal—Mentoring Child Law Interns Remotely

Helping mentor the next generation of child advocates is an important responsibility, but also a time-consuming and stressful one—even more so in a remote work environment.

By Kristin Eiermann and Alison Stankus

This time each year our office typically prepares for an influx of new faces that bring enthusiasm to our worn hallways, hosting law students from around the country in our summer law clerk program. For six to eight weeks, they shadow our attorneys in court and under supervision participate in hearings; accompany staff on client visits to foster homes, residential and group home programs, hospitals, and detention facilities; and attend meetings related to our child clients’ placement, educational, and clinical needs. They also assist with researching and writing appellate briefs and on special projects related to our larger office policy efforts.

Like everything else in the spring 2020, it became increasingly apparent that we would have to pivot from that usual plan. Every aspect of representing children in child welfare cases had been forced to change in just a few weeks, and in the midst of that we also needed to transform the way we trained law students aiming to become advocates for children themselves. How could we create a remote program that would be as robust and valuable as an in-person clerking experience for our already-confirmed law students? How could we protect client confidentiality with the limitations of our government-issued technology? How could we ask our attorney mentors—already stretched and stressed professionally and personally living through a global pandemic—to take on yet another unchartered task?

The Pivot from In-Person to Remote

In March 2020, the Office of the Cook County Public Guardian’s Juvenile Division was operating like many children’s law offices, protecting the rights of children and youth in child abuse and neglect proceedings in Cook County, Illinois. Our office is appointed as attorney and guardian ad litem for about 6,500 clients ranging from newborn to age 21. The division is comprised of approximately 70 lawyers and includes a multidisciplinary team of paralegals, social workers/case advocates, psychologists, investigators, and support staff. In addition to the Juvenile Division, our Domestic Relations Division acts as child representative in contested custody and visitation cases, and our Adult Guardianship Division serves as court-appointed guardian for adults with disabilities.

In all three divisions, law clerks are paired with an attorney mentor who is their supervisor and point of contact for the clerkship. In the Juvenile Division, our attorneys are grouped by “calendars.” A law clerk receives assignments not only from their mentor attorney, but also from other attorneys on that calendar, and during the summer calendars may have more than one assigned clerk. In addition to mentoring, we also provide law students with formal training. In the Juvenile Division, we hold bi-weekly sessions for the first four to six weeks on topics like the Juvenile Court Act and client interviewing, and we facilitate informational sessions between them and our various specialty units and practitioners.

Though we had a well-established program, during initial planning to go remote we were fortunate to connect with other public service organizations through the Public Interest Law Initiative for ideas on how to restructure. One of our first adjustments to the program was to require mentor attorneys, no matter how long they had been practicing and supervising, to attend a virtual orientation on remote mentoring. At the session, we not only reviewed the structural changes of a fully-remote program, but began what would turn out to be a summer-long discussion of how to utilize and engage law clerks in a remote work environment.

We created two tip sheets—one for mentors and one for clerks—that laid out suggestions for creating a productive virtual working relationship before the summer started, at the start of the program, and throughout the summer. For the mentor attorneys, guidelines were as basic as confirming their clerk’s work hours, especially if the clerk was joining from a different time zone, and their resources like hardware and software; to making a list of projects from the calendar before the clerk began and deciding on an electronic system to track assignments; to suggestions for scheduling regular mentor-clerk meetings and establishing how the clerk could communicate questions in lieu of popping into the attorney’s office when an issue arose. The tip sheet for the clerks discussed many of the same topics from their perspective.

We also needed to rework our training program, adapting formerly in-person sessions to a virtual format. For example, a key component of our client interviewing training is role plays, where staff replicate a client scenario, and a clerk conducts a mock interview of the “client” using skills learned in the lecture portion of the training. Instead, for that session we first divided the clerks into virtual breakout rooms to work through one of the sample client scenarios. When we brought them all back together, each breakout group led the discussion on their scenario with input from staff “experts.” We also added to the training program a more detailed orientation to the office and our court partners in an attempt to create a visual of the office and courthouse building for clerks who would never physically work there.

Other considerations revolved around technology and client confidentiality. Clerks previously worked solely on cases in the office, on county-issued computer equipment and with physical paper files. Using Microsoft Teams, we had to create a system of communication and electronic file sharing in line with our ultimate regard for our child clients’ privacy and confidentiality. We amended our confidentiality policy agreement to require clerks to permanently delete any electronic or digital copies of confidential client information from their personal devices at the end of the summer.

Finally, a group of attorneys took on expanding the social aspect of our program to both create more opportunities for clerks to interact with each other and with the attorney mentors outside of cases and training sessions. In addition to a welcome lunchtime Zoom, we hosted a virtual happy hour, trivia night, and mentor/mentee team scavenger hunt. We also encouraged mentor attorneys to include clerks in calendar lunches, meetings, and group texts.

Our Unprecedented Remote Summer Program

Before we knew it, the summer clerks were (remotely) starting and it was time to see if our preparation and planning would be enough to yield a productive program. On June 8, 2020, a little over two months after life as we knew it changed, 20 law students logged onto Zoom for their orientation with the Juvenile Division’s summer law clerk program. Additionally, during that historic summer each of the six attorneys in the Domestic Relations Division mentored a clerk, two who were based on the east coast and one who stayed on from the previous semester, and the Adult Guardianship attorneys also hosted a remote summer clerk.

From the outset, we worked to be purposeful and deliberate with setting expectations regarding training attendance and communication. Law students would typically gather as a group in our office’s reception area the first morning, then be walked to the first training held in one of our conference rooms. Instead, we had to send detailed emails in advance of the clerks’ start with information on how to access their county email addresses and log onto Microsoft Teams, a remote training calendar with links to multiple platforms, and who to contact with questions or issues. We also had to make sure the mentors were aware exactly when and how they needed to make contact with their clerk. We were not able to walk law clerks through the office to ensure they were personally introduced to their mentor attorney, but instead had to ensure each mentor had a plan to reach their clerk to make that first introduction.

During their first week, the mentors and clerks met for the first time as a group during a Zoom brown-bag lunch. One of the mentor attorneys happened to be in the office that day, and he was able to provide a virtual tour. While not able to walk through the building themselves, our clerks still got to see what our offices and filing systems look like.

One challenge we anticipated was how to best track assignments so that mentors could gauge their clerk’s progress and workload. At the start of the summer, we provided all the clerks and mentors with a link to a GoogleDoc where all calendar attorneys could add assignments, deadlines, and other notes to the clerk. Not all calendars continued to use this system, with some transitioning to Microsoft Planner and others simply using text messages or emails, but it set the expectation that mentors needed to communicate about assignments with not only their clerks but their colleagues.

In past semester clerking experiences, we asked mentors to conduct a mid-point evaluation in addition to the final evaluation. This is typically useful in helping us ensure that mentor-clerk pairings are working out and that clerks are receiving an appropriate amount of work. It also lets the clerk “check-in” with themselves regarding any goals they may have had for their summer experience. However, this year, it also let us know where common issues were arising and let us make some necessary adjustments mid-summer.

While we knew communication would be essential, it was impossible to anticipate just how much that would make a difference. As the summer progressed, and especially after the clerks completed the initial formal training sessions, it was clear that the training team needed a regularly-scheduled system to stay connected with the law clerks. This led to a “weekly roundup” email sent to the clerks each Wednesday. While less formal than the virtual training sessions held at the beginning of the summer, this became a consistent medium to provide the clerks updates on policies and procedures, disseminate new information on office-wide training opportunities, and just touch base with them. We also added a mid-summer brainstorming session with the mentor attorneys to provide virtual space for them to engage with each other on the remote mentoring experience from their perspectives.

We quickly learned we needed to be more purposeful with explaining to the clerks how their assignments fit into the “big picture” of the work of the office. In previous years, many valuable conversations about the context of our work would occur during breaks in court, waiting for the elevator, or drives to out-of-office appointments. Even if it could not happen in the same more natural and organic way, we needed to make sure clerks had the chance to ask the attorneys “Why did you phrase your question that way?” or “How did you know to follow up on that point?” Preparing for what they are about to observe and debriefing what had just occurred are integral parts of the learning process for clerks.

Finally, summer 2020 threw us an additional trauma: the murder of George Floyd, police brutality, and the social unrest that followed. Due to the population with which we work, our office has always tried to bring awareness to our clerks about issues of equity and diversity in the child welfare system. Being able to take clients into the neighborhoods—to see the homes and the environments where our kids live—seemed especially important this year. However, due to stay-at-home orders and social distancing, we were not able to provide that experience. Instead, we tried to be more conscious of having these important conversations by adding training sessions on implicit bias as well as racial and cultural considerations.

The past several months had taken an emotional toll on all of us, and we knew we had to ensure our law clerks were not only taught the basics of the child protection system but also the importance of self-care as lawyers for children. Pre-pandemic and now into this “new normal,” our office has strived to recognize and address the effects of secondary trauma and compassion fatigue on our staff by holding monthly Reflective Case Consultations. While mindfulness and avoiding lawyer burnout has increasingly become a CLE topic over the last few years, many of our clerks had not yet had a formal training on this important topic. We included this session the second half of the summer to allow the clerks to gain context for the secondary trauma inherent in our day-to-day work.

Evaluation and Feedback

Despite the challenges posed by the sudden change, coupled with the limited resources of a government office, the Juvenile Division was able create a full and engaging program for 20 rising 2L and 3L students during the summer of 2020. Overall, clerks and mentors seemed to recognize that this was a first for all of us and were flexible in working within the situation.

Following the conclusion of the program, we sent evaluation surveys to both the clerks and mentors seeking feedback on what worked and what did not. While some of the answers were expected—clear communication in a remote program is vital—others have provided inspiration for how to continue to improve upon our initial remote program.

In feedback, clerks indicated they most enjoyed the trainings that included a small-group component and felt better able to discuss concepts in that setting. It also was clear that both clerks and mentors alike preferred smaller break-out rooms in the social events. Large, 40-person Zoom gatherings were overwhelming, and made it difficult for clerks to form connections outside of the one or two attorneys they already knew.

Also, in reviewing the law clerk survey responses, many referenced a group chat they started on their own part-way through the summer. This provided them with an outlet to talk amongst themselves as students about their experiences while building peer relationships. Several of the clerks mentioned wishing they had started that communication sooner. While it is definitely important to make sure the lines of communication are clear and open between the mentor and clerk, an equally important part of the summer experience is the peer relationships the clerks form with one another. It would be beneficial to provide them with that outlet from the onset of the program.

The mentors seemed to find the most struggle with identifying assignments for clerks. Without our physical files and only certain documents accessible electronically, we are already working without all our usual tools. This coupled with the lack of face-to-face engagement to assess a clerk’s understanding of a concept, made it difficult for attorneys to determine what would be an appropriate assignment. About halfway through the summer we held a session for mentors to talk together about what was going well and where they were having trouble. Many found this to be helpful in determining where and how to make changes moving forward. Just as the clerks needed a space to connect outside of group events with trainers and mentors, the mentor attorneys also needed a space to connect outside of events with their clerks.

We ran into all the difficulties you would expect working with new technology, including internet outages and licensing errors for software. We also had the unanticipated bumps of managing a group of clerks in different time zones and figuring out the rules for 711-licensed law students who were not physically in Illinois. We had to be considerate of attorneys who were navigating new work-family balances in a high-stress, once-in-a-lifetime, global pandemic. We also had to be sympathetic to clerks who were experiencing all the normal stresses of law school in addition to figuring out how to navigate continuing their education in this “new normal.” However, despite the challenges the responses to our summer 2020 program were overwhelmingly positive. One clerk stated that her “time at the OPG was more productive than experiences shared by her peers in other offices.”

Lessons Learned for the Future

We, like most of the world, had been hoping the virtual nature of summer 2020 would be a one-time experience. However, as winter transitioned to spring, we realized continued uncertainty about the state of reopening necessitated another round of remote law clerks. The silver-lining to these circumstances is that we are able to take the lessons from last summer and improve upon the existing remote program. While we were able to provide a full program last year, we decided that for this summer a smaller program would allow for a more meaningful experience for both clerks and mentor attorneys. Mentoring is an important, but time-consuming, responsibility—even more so in a remote work environment. By extending offers to a smaller group of clerks, we could pair them with mentors who had the time and desire to participate in a remote program.

Additionally, after accepting that we had to be remote for a while longer, we were able to front this information during virtual interviews and career fairs. This opened our applicant pool to students who may not have been able to physically relocate to Chicago for a summer.

As we prepare for this summer’s class to start in the coming weeks, we are feeling more confident and prepared than last year. We are now experienced users of both Microsoft Teams and Zoom, we have navigated client confidentiality and document sharing concerns, and we have gone through the trial and error in determining what projects work best for remote clerks and how to track them. Hopefully, as we transition back into the office in the future, we will still be able to use some of these technological short-cuts to enhance the experience of our future clerks.

In the hardship and loss that plagued 2020, we would be remiss not to acknowledge the loss of a legend in the legal community—Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. However, like much of the struggle of the past year, we found light and inspiration where we could. When looking to the future of the legal community and how we can best prepare the next generation of public service lawyers, one must only consider her words:

If you want to be a true professional, you will do something outside yourself. Something to repair the tears in your community. Something to make life a little better for people less fortunate than you. That’s what I think a meaningful life is—living not for oneself, but for one’s community.

Ultimately, when considering whether it was beneficial it to put the time and energy into another remote clerking program, the answer was obvious. The Office of the Public Guardian does the work we do not for ourselves, but for others. We feel a sense of duty toward those we serve. That duty also extends to the future of the legal profession, to ensure that the next generation of attorneys and advocates has the knowledge and experience to continue this work despite the unprecedented obstacles that may continue to lie ahead. 

Kristin Eiermann and Alison Stankus are senior attorneys in the Juvenile Division of the Office of the Cook County Public Guardian in Chicago, Illinois. 


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