October 17, 2019 Opening Statement

Seeing and Believing—The Superpower of the Judicial Intern Opportunity Program

JIOP, fueled by its simple mission and its passionate volunteers, is driving our profession toward a more prosperous and inclusive future.

Barbara J. Dawson

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I write in praise of the Judicial Intern Opportunity Program, or JIOP. The mission of JIOP is to provide judicial intern opportunities to law students who are members of groups that are traditionally underrepresented in the profession, including racial and ethnic minorities; women; students with disabilities; students who identify themselves as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender; and students who are economically disadvantaged. It provides the experience of spending six weeks in a summer during law school working closely with a judge as a mentor in any of a number of U.S. cities. It also offers a $2,000 stipend to participants, which helps to make the experience accessible to a broader range of worthy candidates.

The program has been in existence for 19 years. It is a point of pride for the ABA Section of Litigation, its primary sponsor for more than 17 years. It has offered judicial intern experiences to 2,800 law students. The superpower of the program comes in two forms: (1) allowing promising nontraditional students to see how the judicial system works from the seat next to a judge and envision themselves in the roles of lawyers and judges; and (2) helping those students to believe that they can succeed in this profession, with the encouragement and support of relatable judges and lawyers who are deeply invested in their success.

How It Works

The program is focused on the growth and support of the participating students from start to finish. Applicants are first screened in interviews with practicing litigators who volunteer for these roles. As that screening interview may be a student’s first law-related interview, it is intended to be part of the learning process. Following the initial screening, successful applicants are matched with federal and state judges who have volunteered to participate in this program. Those judges then interview the applicants recommended for their chambers in person or by phone. The rounds of screening interviews by litigators and judges who are passionate about the virtues of the program are often cited by participating students as a very meaningful part of the learning process that this unique program offers.

Once selected for a judicial internship, the students are often in for one of the best developmental experiences of their lives. Many of the JIOP judges have been committed to the program for years because they so value the chance to open doors for a promising future member of the profession through this internship relationship. These judges appreciate that they are likely going to have the chance to help a student with much raw talent and drive but potentially little personal exposure to the world of judges and lawyers. Consequently, JIOP mentoring often includes “ride alongs” to bar or community meetings and to gatherings of lawyers and judges, allowing a JIOP student to really see a judge’s world outside of chambers.

An important additional part of the support network for JIOP participants is the Mentoring Circle Program organized and run by the JIOP alumni. This group answers student questions, hosts events, and literally walks students into rooms for events that might otherwise be intimidating. In other words, the JIOP alums take the success of those following in their footsteps very personally and, in doing so, let the JIOP participants see what it looks like to be engaged young lawyers creating a community of support and inclusion.

The focus on very practical mentoring is what makes me, as a supporter of JIOP for more than a decade, believe that this program is special. I had the opportunity to help bring the program to Arizona in 2006. With a coalition of highly invested law firm litigators and judges, as well as Arizona’s state bar and the Arizona Foundation for Legal Services and Education, we saw firsthand what a different six weeks of exposure to our professional world could make for students. We worked to create a support network for JIOP participants that offered students a window into the daily lives of legal professionals in a variety of roles in both formal and informal settings. In other words, we offered “ride alongs” to everything from Arizona Supreme Court hearings to happy hours at the state bar convention—learning experiences all.

The goal underlying JIOP is to offer an experience that will allow students from this broad diversity of backgrounds to “catch up” with those whose backgrounds exposed them to lawyers, judges, and professional settings. If you ever are in the mood to feel good about what that type of a mentoring experience can mean to a promising student trying to understand the unwritten rules of decorum in legal circles, I invite you to read the JIOP alumni testimonials posted on the ABA’s website. In fact, I would direct you to more broadly read all about the program at ambar.org/jiop.

Although JIOP preceded the focus on the imposter syndrome as it applies to nontraditional and diverse individuals in the legal profession, it seems to take the issue on directly. The imposter syndrome refers to the general tendency of a person to doubt his or her accomplishments and have a persistent fear of being exposed as a fraud. It seems to show up when a person really does not believe that he or she belongs in a particular situation, and it undercuts the confidence of people who otherwise appear to be succeeding. Not surprisingly, first-generation professionals and others who do not see an abundance of role models who look like them may disproportionately fall prey to such doubt. It is abundantly clear that JIOP’s one-on-one mentoring can make an extraordinary difference in helping nontraditional soon-to-be professionals to see and believe that they can do it.

My Own Experience

I can speak from my own experience here, and maybe that is why I so strongly value what JIOP offers. While I came from a background of tremendous support, I was a first-generation college graduate. Moreover, I was quite unique as a young woman in Iowa in the late 1980s who knew no lawyers but wanted to pursue law school. And on top of that, I am ethnically diverse and I did not see people who looked like me doing what I wanted to do.

For me, the lucky breaks came in the form of opportunities with some ridiculously patient mentors in private practice in Arizona. I was helped along my path by a series of kind people who seemed to appreciate that the professional world of lawyers and judges was a stretch for me and sometimes quite unnerving. The mentoring came in the form of guidance with each new experience that I had in court, with clients, and in community leadership. The mentoring also helped with more basic things such as how to handle being the only woman lawyer in the room (and often mistaken for the court reporter) and how to keep a good sense of humor through it all. Good mentors taught me to see and believe that I could use my voice for matters about which I care, and I see JIOP as a program that passes that gift forward.

I suspect that all litigators and judges thriving in the practice today have their own stories of trial and error as they navigated the early years of their practices. I suspect that those who came from backgrounds without judges, lawyers, or other professionals, in particular, are aware of their steps—and missteps—in finding their way into our rather lofty professional world. And I suspect they too appreciate how much a good mentor mattered.

I am grateful for the hundreds of supporters of JIOP—judges, litigators, educators, administrators, and its wonderful program director, Gail Howard—who have embraced what this program can do to welcome nontraditional law students into our very special profession. The ability of the program to take individuals with substantial raw talent and let them see and believe what they can become is time-tested and tremendous. I believe that we are at our best when we have the benefit of varied voices with a wide range of backgrounds and experiences serving as our advocates and judges. JIOP, fueled by its simple mission and its passionate volunteers, is truly a superpower driving our profession toward a more prosperous and inclusive future.

Barbara J. Dawson

The author is a partner with Snell & Wilmer, Phoenix, and chair of the Section of Litigation.


Copyright © 2019, American Bar Association. All rights reserved. This information or any portion thereof may not be copied or disseminated in any form or by any means or downloaded or stored in an electronic database or retrieval system without the express written consent of the American Bar Association. The views expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the positions or policies of the American Bar Association, the Section of Litigation, this committee, or the employer(s) of the author(s).