Earthrise Summer Law Clerk Gains Trial Experience
July 17, 2012
7/17/12 - This May marks the end of my second year of law school. It also marks the first time I realized clearly why I am in law school, and how this education is actually preparing me to be a lawyer. My second assignment as a summer law clerk for Earthrise Law Center (formerly PEAC) was to get on a plane from Portland, OR, to Madison, WI, to support two Earthrise attorneys in a week-long Clean Water Act trial in Wisconsin district court. Surprisingly, this was Earthrise’s first-ever federal trial. Unsurprisingly, it was also my first trial. Yet despite my rookie status, Earthrise scooped me up and threw me into the mix, naming me one of the trial team in its hunt for justice against polluters.
And it was awesome. From the minute I arrived in Madison, I was indeed embraced as one of the team. The action was non-stop; I worked twelve- and fourteen-hour days alongside six experienced attorneys preparing witnesses for trial, thinking about strategy, writing motions, analyzing case law, and conducting last-minute factual and legal research. On the first day, I helped crank out a motion in limine in four hours. The next day, the judge granted the motion—a small victory for a team of experienced lawyers but a huge one in my nascent legal career. As the eve of trial approached, I realized that I was observing six different approaches to questioning witnesses, trial strategy, and legal analysis. I watched and participated as the attorneys each developed ideas, tested, then refined them. It was incredibly energizing. It was as if we were preparing for a “choose-your-own adventure” game; each attorney generously divulged their secrets about how they planned to use facts and law to win.
And finally, at trial, everything became clear. As I sat behind the bar, taking notes and scrambling with last-minute research, I experienced a sort of amazing synthesis of law school education plus intensive trial-prep plus TV-lawyer drama. I saw real-life examples of hearsay, and began to strategize in my head about how the attorneys would lay foundation for the next exhibit they wanted to introduce. I saw the attorneys’ questioning strategies play out—or not—and found myself thinking about how I would have done it or noting effective phrases, body language, tone, and progressions. And after a few rounds of particularly effective questioning, I had to keep myself from jumping out of my seat to shout, “And what do you think about that, Judge?!” as if we were in a high-stakes TV trial, complete with music for dramatic effect.
This hands-on, in-the-trenches, one-of-the-team experience is just what Earthrise does best. I would have never done this work merely researching for a professor or slogging away at some other research-based job. My attorney-mentors treated me like an equal; they let me in on their strategies, used my ideas and research, and counted on me to write for the team. Working so closely with those attorneys invigorated me to be more effective in my legal career, and gave me hope that there actually may be a place for me in the legal world. In Madison—and at Earthrise in general—I helped real attorneys litigating a real case to stop real polluters. I give hearty thanks to my Earthrise attorney-mentors for making me part of that team and launching my legal career.