Third Circuit X COVID-19: What I learned During My Internship With the Second Highest Court in the United States

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By: Shakierah Smith

I sat, quietly, in front of my slim, rose gold MacBook Air, and thought to myself, “Is this it? Am I truly done?” Of course, in typical Shakierah fashion, I quickly answered my own questions: yes, and yes. But in that moment, I could not fathom, nor did I want to believe, that my summer internship with the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit had truly come to an abrupt end. Although I had been looking forward to relaxing with my family and friends, I was deeply saddened by the mere thought of saying goodbye to Judge Julio M. Fuentes, his law clerks, and judicial assistant. But the time had arrived. So, I sat at my pink desk, sighed deeply, and began reminiscing about the past seven weeks I had spent interning for the Court as part of the summer fellowship program at the University at Buffalo School of Law. In doing so, several paramount lessons and anecdotes came to mind that are, at least in my opinion, worth sharing for future interns following in my footsteps.

  1. Apply for the position, then apply yourself once you get it!

In all honesty, I was NOT going to apply for this internship. Despite being ambitious, dedicated, hard-working, intelligent, and having had a successful fall semester, I thought this internship was totally out of my league (whatever that means). But in the midst of my internalized self-doubt, I also felt a sense of optimism. So, I applied. Luckily, I was interviewed and received an offer the very next day, which I readily and immediately accepted.

After accepting the internship offer, I sought advice from my law professors, the Career Services Office, and prior interns regarding how to best prepare for such a prestigious, one-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Their advice was surprisingly simple: be yourself and continue to work hard like you did during your fall semester. As such, I allowed their practical advice to guide me throughout my unprecedented, remote internship experience. In doing so, I found myself working just as hard (maybe even harder the more I think about it) on my assignments like I did during my 1L year. Ultimately, I did not allow COVID-19 and the overall uncertainty plaguing our nation prevent me from applying the best part of my intellectual being to this internship. In the end, my hard work did not go unnoticed by the Court.

I say all of that to say this: believe in yourself and your capabilities as a motivated, brilliant legal scholar and future attorney. Even when you have doubt about whether or not you’re qualified for a position, still go for it and apply because you never know what could happen. In other words, don’t limit yourself nor your opportunities. Also, after accepting a position, don’t forget to apply yourself and show your employer why choosing YOU was, in fact, the right decision.

  1. Dear Email, who knew you were so important?!

This summer truly revealed to me the importance of (i) utilizing email to effectively communicate with others, and (ii) doing so in a prompt, efficient manner, which maximizes the use of everyone’s valuable time.

All of my assignments, confidential files, and feedback were exchanged via email. Upon receipt of salient documents or assignments, I would promptly respond in order to (i) confirm I successfully received the document(s), and (ii) ask pertinent questions related to deadlines, expectations, and document formatting. I would also request exemplar model briefs from the various law clerks I worked with, so that I could mirror their unique writing styles. As such, I was frequently praised for being both prompt and inquisitive in my email responses.

Since email is a pervasive form of communication often used in professional settings, it is important to always respond in a prompt, professional manner, regardless of whether or not the sender does so. Also, it is helpful, especially for employers, when interns send a list of questions they have regarding an assignment versus sending numerous emails containing individual questions that could have been sent in one email response; work smarter, not harder!

  1. It’s not merely about what you know, rather, who you know and what they have to say about you!

I never realized how important networking was until I started my first year of law school. The legal community is large, yet so small, and by small, I mean how rapid your reputation, whether good or bad, can travel across jurisdictional lines. So, it’s imperative to be mindful of the impression(s) you leave on people who may possess the power to put you in higher positions that ultimately jumpstart your career! For example, the law clerk I worked closely with was an associate at a big New York City law firm. After learning that I was interested in working as a summer associate at a big NYC law firm next year, she connected me with a number of her associate friends who worked at big NYC law firms, too. She also introduced me to the litigation partner at her former employer. However, it’s important to note that before she made any of these connections, she closely monitored my work ethic and examined the quality of my completed assignments with a critical eye. It was only after she had built confidence in me that she felt comfortable enough to make such connections, as her reputation was on the line as well. So, you should always work hard, express your interests, and make a good impression!

  1. Excellent legal writing is insanely important, so take LAWR serious!!

This internship helped vastly improve my legal research, writing and analytical skills. On the first day, I was assigned to write a 42 U.S.C. § 1983 non-precedential opinion, which is a judgment only binding to the parties involved. Additionally, I wrote a series of “squibs,” which are short summaries containing case facts, pertinent law, and a recommendation for the case disposition and oral argument. In addition, I authored various reviews of presidential opinions drafted by a panel of Third Circuit judges. I also worked on an extensive research project concerning harboring illegal aliens. The bar and standards were set high from the beginning. Luckily, I was up for the challenge and well prepared by my University at Buffalo School of Law Legal Analysis, Writing & Research (LAWR) professor, Kate Rowan. I received a lot of positive feedback and constructive criticism on how to improve my writing. After receiving commentary on my drafts, I always made a conscious effort to incorporate the feedback into my future assignments in order to show that such feedback was not given in vain; I internalized it.

The point I want to make here is do not take feedback, and in particular criticism, personally. Use every comment, tracked change, and verbal suggestion as an opportunity to strengthen your writing. Also, actively seek feedback because, let’s face it, there’s always room for improvement!

  1. Take your time and the initiative!

One of the main issues I faced this summer while interning was not having established deadlines for assignments, at least in the beginning. When this occurred, I felt compelled to quickly complete an assignment so that it did not appear as though I was wasting valuable time. But in doing so, I made various minor mistakes, such as forgetting to add a citation. This was problematic, at least for me, because I know minor mistakes can speak to your credibility as both a writer and attorney.

So, it’s important to take your time and pace yourself. If you struggle with having flexible deadlines, create your own schedule or ask your employer if they have a preferred due date and work around that. Remember, if there is enough time, it’s better to turn in superb work that takes a little longer to perfect versus rushed work that does not speak to your capability as a strong legal writer.

My internship with the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit has truly been life-altering, in a great way. I am very grateful to the Jessica Ortiz ’05 Federal Judicial Fellowship Award that supported my work. Now, I am looking forward to implementing some of the legal writing skills I acquired and professionalism advice I received this summer into my future legal writing assignments, both inside and outside of the traditional (whatever that means now) classroom setting.

In conclusion, goodbye Third Circuit. Hello, 2L!
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Name: Shakierah Smith

Placement: United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit

Name of Fellowship: Jessica Ortiz ’05 Federal Judicial Fellowship

Location: Newark, NJ (I worked remotely in Rochester, NY due to COVID-19)

Important Lesson: Communication, consistency and great writing skills are all equally important.”