This blog post is part of our ongoing guest Blog Series: “Opportunity Knocks.” For a full schedule, please see: http://law.scu.edu/lcs-blog/upcoming-blog-series-opportunity-knocks/
Howdy, my name’s Dustin Seesemann, and this is my Public Defender internship story:
I secured my internship in a less conventional way. I initially submitted my resume to a judge in preparation for a judicial clerkship, when my roommate forwarded me an e-mail from Professor Kreitzberg asking for interns for the Santa Clara Public Defender. I leapt on the offer, and was interviewed and placed within a few weeks. I spent that first summer organizing trial binders, which gave me an in-depth understanding of the complexity of the criminal justice system, and assisting my supervising attorney with trial strategy with a few motions in between. My supervisor allowed me leeway in how I performed my tasks, allowing me to find my own particular style and refine it with his guidance.
My internship over this past summer was also obtained through personal connections. A good friend of mine who had previously interned at the Merced County Public Defender’s Office shot me a text letting me know they were still seeking an intern for the summer, possibly in a paid position. Within two weeks, I submitted my resume, renewed my Bar certification, moved into an apartment in the Central Valley, and was working in their office. As a Bar certified student in a small office, I was able to get a real taste of what practice was like. My supervisors split the case files into thirds, and I was delegated my own clients, motions, and trials. I also performed client interviews, and did the arraignment calendar. Essentially, I acted as a highly supervised attorney, and in that environment I was able to actually apply everything I’d studied for two-thirds of my legal education. And I can tell you honestly that after obtaining a hung jury for my first client in my first trial, there is no feeling that can ever compare to having your client shake your hand, and thank you for what you did. Now, with two trials (one hung jury, and one not guilty on the heaviest count) under my belt, I have obtained experience that very few other law students possess.
The best way to prepare yourself for a position at a public defender’s office is to start your research early. Find a student organization that has a mentor program, and find a mentor who can give you guidance. The next step should be to talk to alumni, faculty, friends who have previously worked there, anyone who might be able to offer you valuable advice on the office itself. If you can speak to someone from that office over coffee, even better! Really get a feel for the office, let them know you’re interested, and then just send it in. And don’t worry if you aren’t 100% sure this is what you want to do: your first summer is going to be the best time to test the waters and see if this is right for you. And if it isn’t, no big deal, there are plenty of other legal fields to explore.
As for making yourselves a prime candidate, experience is key. Before my internship in Merced, I had interned for seven months with the Santa Clara Public Defender, and had also taken the Northern California Innocence Project Clinic (Highly recommended, by the way! The work’s fantastic, you gain a great understanding of criminal procedure, and offices love to see that experience!), both of which helped to secure my position over summer. Being Bar certified is also tremendously important, so prioritize Evidence and Civil Procedure as soon as possible. Many offices will also want you to complete Criminal Procedure prior to your second summer, so be sure to plan your schedule accordingly. And finally, make sure that this is something you want to do. The best candidate is not the person with the highest GPA, or the most extracurricular activities, but the person who genuinely has passion for the line of work, and can handle the emotional nature of it.
And my last piece of advice: don’t feel restricted in where you go. There are many public defenders’ offices throughout the state, and each has its own unique experiences to offer you. Don’t be afraid to head somewhere else for a few months, because you never know how much those offices have to offer you, and how much you’ll grow as a future attorney from that experience.
Dustin Seesemann is a 3L graduating next Spring. He has interned for public defenders’ offices throughout the state of California, and is still deliberating where to do his post bar clerkship. He also is more than happy to answer public defender intern hopefuls questions over the biggest blackest cup of coffee the nearest coffee shop can provide.