A Rare Opportunity
June 8, 2017
Almost daily, my supervisor’s partner Barrington, another public defender, reiterates to me how unique an opportunity I have to see how a courtroom functions without a law degree through completing this internship. His thoughts are echoed by multiple others who work in Branch 43, one of two courtrooms at the courthouse on Harrison and Kedzie. I will be spending the next eight weeks as a law clerk for the public defenders of Branch 43.
For me, pursuing a career in criminology, urban policy, or even law is a matter of civic pride. Growing up in Chicago and watching (with more than a few degrees of separation) the police harass and destroy the lives of the people of my city motivated me to use my education to help the city I love. This internship was recommended to me by a friend and personal mentor who has been a public defender for many years and her work had always fascinated me. I pursued this internship for the opportunity for complete immersion in the courtroom experience, and an honest perspective on what it’s like to be an attorney working for the government. I am fortunate enough to be living at home, but the hour-long commute on two trains will take some getting used to!
My supervisor, Katie, has been gradually showing me the ropes of how misdemeanor court functions. As I face challenges in a new working environment, Katie also faces the challenge of helping me learn as much as possible without having a license to practice law as a Non-Law Student Intern for her office. Despite this, I am very busy during the day. My daily tasks range anywhere from doing initial paperwork for Katie and Barrington’s caseload every day, to making calls to clients to update them on their next court date, to accompanying Katie to lock-up (the jail cells in the basement of the courthouse) to talk to clients before they appear in front of the judge.
I ask Barrington, Katie, and/or whoever will listen what I can be doing to get the most out of this experience that I can, and they all say the same thing, “just listen”. So, for most of the day I am simply watching court proceedings just feet from the bench, furiously scribbling observations and questions for Katie about what she is doing for her clients. Every day, the first call for cases is at 9 am. Defendants, families of defendants, and complaining witnesses (those who pressed charges against said defendants) file in to the courtroom and leave one by one as cases are called and dismissed. There is another “call” at 1 pm, and a final one at 2:30 pm. Court proceedings move very fast and are very formulaic in structure. I was instantly reminded, unsurprisingly, of student senate!
I spend most of my days as Katie’s shadow, which is such a privilege. She is a brilliant lawyer with an incredible talent for putting her clients at ease, even the most agitated. Katie once described herself as someone who is “not easily ruffled”, which I am quickly learning is 100% necessary for this kind of work. They are dealing with, for the most part, defending kids around my age making stupid mistakes or people committing petty crimes of survival. In Barrington’s words, their clients are “about 85% Black, 10% Hispanic, and 5% White”. Expanding on this, he says they are for the most part in poverty, coming from a single-parent household, the parent has a felony record and/or a substance abuse problem, around a 5th grade reading level, and suffering from physical/sexual abuse as a child. I have also personally observed that about 80% of their clients have serious mental health issues, most of the time they express themselves. My friend/mentor is a public defender and she recommended this internship to me. I have always known that she had a doctorate in psychology that she pursued after law school, but the marriage of those two disciplines never made sense to me, until now.
Fortunately, I have the privilege of watching both Katie and Barrington work. Their styles could not be anymore different. Barrington always says he has been doing this job “since Jesus was a baby”, and it shows when he speaks to clients. While Katie is stern but sympathetic in her client interactions, Barrington is a football coach. He is done “hand-holding” (Katie’s words). Through our conversations, I know that Barrington is fully aware of the structural barriers these men (by a large majority) are facing, but his conversations with them always end with the demand to “arrest-proof” themselves, i.e. drink at home instead of in the street, etc. He relates to them, but he never lets them go without stressing to them that it’s their responsibility not to get arrested. I am reminded of endless discussions of the agency of the individual vs the power of the structure in sociology classes while I witness these interactions.
After my first couple of days, I was expressing to a friend how lucky I felt that I had been paired with such brilliant and personable PD’s as well as a uniquely fair and compassionate judge. She validated this feeling, but she also gently pushed me to see that it was not simply luck that I was getting along so well with these people, but that I was actively cultivating successful working relationships through my work ethic and general demeanor. Her comment energized me and I knew I was in the right place. I have learned so much already this week and I can’t wait for more!
Allegra is a sociology major from Chicago, Illinois.