Overcoming Closed Doors

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By: Madeline Cook

In late February, I accepted an offer from a local corporate employer to work in its legal department. I was thrilled as I landed one of the only paid 1L internships at one of Buffalo’s well-known companies. I wanted to learn about the in-house counsel life and knew I loved contract law so it felt like a perfect match. But by mid-May, with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the company cancelled its 1L program all together.

Devastated, I scrambled to apply to other opportunities. The majority of my applications were unsolicited and unwelcome. I spent a good week cold-calling law offices in the area, all of which ended in flat out rejections. I was starting to accept that I would spend my 1L Summer babysitting. So, when the United States Attorney’s Office for the Western District of New York offered me an opportunity to interview, I jumped at the opportunity.

Federal court was a big step up from babysitting. Turns out, being terminated from the job I planned to take before COVID-19 was one of the best things that could have happened for my summer. As an in-house clerk, I would have spent the summer focusing on mainly one area of law. In the chambers of Hon. John L. Sinatra, Jr., I researched and observed proceedings on about any area of law that could come before a federal judge.

My average day in chambers involved one to five proceedings on a range of federal matters. I saw witnesses testify during evidentiary hearings; I watched the arraignments of several defendants arising out of the Black Lives Matter protesting earlier this summer; I observed significant sentencings of numerous defendants; I saw oral arguments on interlocutory appeals, detention disputes, and compassionate release issues due to the onset of COVID-19. The list goes on and on. I loved court life for this very reason –– every day was different. The people, the stories, the laws, they were always changing, always forcing the clerks and judges to learn new things, work collaboratively, and think critically. Being exposed to so many areas of law created more confusion for me even beyond what I already was experiencing about the kind of law I want to practice. However, I know now that I want a career that is ever-evolving. This was a major lesson learned from this fellowship.

Picture2Before my internship with Judge Sinatra, I was largely clueless to the critical work happening every day in Buffalo’s courts. I’ve gained so much perspective on career options for myself and the possibilities of my law degree from the University at Buffalo School of Law. I was so grateful for the opportunity to work in the Western District of New York, made possible because of the support from the Graham Koehler Judicial Fellowship Award. I hope to be back in that court someday as counsel.

Here are my five main take-aways from this summer:

  1. It’s okay to get discouraged by life’s hurdles and proverbial closed doors, but resiliency is always a better solution than defeat.
  2. A good work ethic and a positive attitude are everything in the legal world.
  3. Take a chance – risk of failure or fear of embarrassment are never good reasons for resisting something new or opting out of applying for something competitive. You might just surprise yourself.
  4. Allow yourself a moment to unapologetically celebrate your victories – but move on from that moment with humility and grace.
  5. Lawyering can involve a lot of interpersonal interaction, or very little; it can present a lot of new legal issues, or very few. Personally, I’ve learned I need to be able to develop client relationships, have a great deal of interpersonal interaction, and have a legal career with new legal issues all the time.

Picture3Name: Madeline Cook, ‘22

Name of Fellowship: Graham Koehler Judicial Fellowship Award

Placement: United States Attorney’s Office for the Western District for the New York

Location: Buffalo, New York

Important Lesson: “I want a career that is ever-evolving.”