A summer of substantive work: DPD’s interns learn what it means to stand with clients

Katie Melnick, a 3L at Berkeley Law, knew there was a chance she’d be able to take a case to trial during her 10-week summer internship at the Department of Public Defense. All the same, she said, she was amazed and thrilled when it happened.

She visited the client once a week as they prepped for trial. She worked closely with her co-counsel, DPD attorney Dennis Martin, developing a plan. Then, during trial, she helped to argue the case, conducting such an excellent cross of the investigating officer that the prosecutor, according to Dennis, conceded in closing that the investigation “was, admittedly, not great.”

Clockwise, from top left: Rachel Bass, Mila Reed-Guevara, Katie Melnick, and Jessamine Anderson.

“It was a wonderful experience,” Katie said. She felt fully supported by Dennis and her supervisors, Katharine Edwards and Kate Aitken. She was also pleased that she got to know the client as well as she did. “Getting to have that relationship with the client and fighting on his behalf was special and exciting. The work was just so rewarding.”

DPD’s 10-week summer internship program ended in mid-August, and several of those who participated echoed Katie’s sentiments. They briefed and argued motions. They challenged search warrants and worked to suppress unlawfully seized evidence. They represented both adults and children in first appearances, sought their release in release hearings, co-counseled entire misdemeanor trials, and supported attorneys in felony trials. They also said they had fun.

“It was awesome,” said Mila Reed-Guevara, a 3L at Yale Law School. “Right off the bat I had my first courtroom experience, representing children in their first appearances in juvenile court. It was such a lesson in working with clients and meeting them at their different needs.”

Rachel Bass, a 3L at Georgetown, said she appreciated being able to take what she was learning in law school and applying it to real life and real people.

“I also appreciated the amount of trust in the office,” she said. “They trusted me to do a good job, but I also trusted them to have my back. Having that support was invaluable.”

She, too, took a case to trial and found the experience working with DPD attorney Selena Alonzo thrilling. “Selena valued my opinion. I was able to craft defense theories. I really worked up the case … every step of the way.”

Jessamine Anderson, a 3L at Seattle University School of Law, called her time at DPD “a fabulous experience. …  I felt like I was making a valuable contribution.”

DPD hired 19 interns – all rising 3Ls – to participate in this summer’s program, which began with four days of intensive training and small-group discussions before they went to their assigned units in criminal or family defense.

DPD’s program is one of the few public defense internships that pays its interns. We do so, said Tara Urs, who oversees our intern program, out of a commitment to equity. “Law schools vary widely in how much support, if any, they offer their students over the summer.  We are committed to ensuring all of our interns are paid equally for their work,” she said.

The program is an important investment, said Anita Khandelwal, the director of the department – a way to develop aspiring public defenders, deepen their connection to the cause of public defense, and support DPD’s mission of strong and effective advocacy on behalf of poor and marginalized people. “We want our interns to end the program knowing what it means to stand with a client,” she said.

Those who supervised this summer’s interns were impressed by the students’ skill, determination, and commitment to DPD’s clients. They also said the interns made a difference. Like Anita, they see it as a two-way street: Interns get an opportunity to experience the pace and nature of public defense work; at the same time, they’re making a meaningful contribution, providing hands-on support to caseload-carrying attorneys.

“They provide a lot of relief for attorneys,” said Micol Sirkin, a misdemeanor supervisor who worked with Mila Reed-Guevara over the summer. “And I think they get a lot in return. Guidance, feedback, and a real sense of how criminal law is put into practice. You don’t get this in law school very often.”

Kate Aitken, who supervised both Katie Melnick and Rachel Bass, said she hopes the interns returned to law school knowing that public defense is a viable profession, a place where you can thrive professionally and personally.

“I hope that what we give them is a meaningful summer of substantive work – and the realization that you can have a life as a public defender,” she said. “I want them to know that you can be a public defender for a long time, that it’s a career.”

Interns said they learned not only what it was like to be a public defender in the courtroom, but also what it was like to work with others committed to dismantling systems that harm poor people and are racially disproportionate. They were struck by the camaraderie, the way everyone in the office supported one another, the significant role other professional staff played on the defense team, and the fact that people did, indeed, take vacations.

“I’ve never worked with more passionate and kind people,” Jessamine said. “It seemed everyone was dedicated to abolishing the system even while working within it.”

Mila said her summer at DPD confirmed her decision to go into public defense. “I found it thrilling to be at a place where, if the client wants to go to trial, we will – we’ll develop a strategy, fight hard, and sometimes win.”

“But there’s also so much care to make sure it’s sustainable,” she said. “They want us to live our lives.”

Ultimately, interns said, working with clients made all the difference.

“There’s no question that I want to be a public defender,” Katie said. “I loved getting to know clients, working with them, and fighting on their behalf.”

Added Rachel, “It was an opportunity to put everything I learned into practice. The first question always was, ‘How can we do this in a way that’s best for our client?’ It was great for me to learn what it means to truly put the client first.”

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