An Unexpected Discovery that Lawyers are Human: Revelations From An Intern’s First Legal Position

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By Ron Oakes ’23

As a non-traditional student entering the legal profession from a career as a Registered Nurse, I brought with me some preconceived notions about the law and its practitioners. Contrary to the compassion I brought to patient care, I initially thought the legal profession was impersonal, unforgiving, and inflexible. Right away, after observing even the most conventional professors adapt to law school in a pandemic, my impressions began to shift as I witnessed real life struggles to overcome the challenges of remote learning. 

The culmination of my first year of law school––thanks to the donors of the Jessica Ortiz ’05 Federal Judicial Fellowship Award––was a rewarding experience serving as a judicial intern for Judge Julio M. Fuentes, a senior judge for the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit. Fellow UB interns (the exceptional Jessica Asbach, Kristen Cascio, Giovanni Gaglianese, and Lee Rynski) and I served alongside four brilliant law clerks and were able to assist with numerous projects in various stages of the appellate process. I cannot thank the donors enough for supporting this fellowship!

I was apprehensive at the beginning as this internship was my first experience actually working in the legal profession. I was mentally prepared for the “sit up straight and don’t speak unless you’re spoken to” teachings from my childhood, but the kindness and generosity of the Judge, law clerks, and administrative staff was immediately apparent and put me at ease as they welcomed us and spent time walking through the appellate process and explaining what our roles would be. We became more personally acquainted with the law clerks through routine video conferences and “happy hours.” In addition to learning about law, we also learned about the challenges in maintaining a sourdough starter, methods for handling elderly neighbors who like to “pop in” mid-workday, angst in planning to potty train a toddler, and the struggle in finding a job that can strike the right balance between career goals and personal time. 

A few of us also had the great privilege to observe Judge SchwartzJudge Krause, and Judge Fuentes hear oral arguments in the James A. Byrne United States Courthouse in Philadelphia. It was interesting to watch four attorneys present their arguments and respond to the judges’ battery of questions (some of which I assisted in preparing). The attorneys presented with varying levels of confidence; some clearly more prepared than others. One appeared not to move a muscle the entire time. Some paused before responding to a question. One rambled. Some were able to get right back on point after responding concisely. One interrupted a judge’s question to disagree. These observations allowed me to see that each lawyer brought a unique approach, grounded in their past experiences and preparation. That individuality was not discouraged, but rather the judges were flexible in questioning and with time.

Not only was it inspiring to watch the oral arguments, I was awestruck taking in the reverence of the court, the proceedings, and the fact that I had a role. The experience also afforded me the opportunity to discuss a case one-on-one with Judge Fuentes, to have a conversation with the exceedingly kind Judge Schwartz, and to sit down alongside the law clerks and contemplate career advice from the remarkable Judge Krause. 

Although I had expected to learn in a rigid and formal environment, what I received was much more than just legal education and an experience to add to my resume. This internship was a reminder that we are all human; imperfect people trying to do what we believe is right and just, but from different points in our own journeys. And although the law clerks had more feedback and edits in my writing than I had hoped for, they were all very complimentary and reminded me that I have just begun my journey. Their generosity and genuine offers for ongoing support and the humble nature of the federal judges make them all consummate role-models. 

Not only did this internship give me new insight on those who practice the law, I learned a great deal about the appellate process. The role of administrative agencies in appeals, equitable tolling in a habeas appeal, contract language interpretation in an employment dispute, the Rooker-Feldman doctrine, and the many facets of immigration law are a few of the issues I had the opportunity to work on. Armed with a new-found perspective supported by the University at Buffalo School of Law Summer Public Interest Funding & Fellowship Program, I am looking forward to meeting with professors and classmates in-person this upcoming 2L-year.

Name: Ron Oakes

Name of Fellowship: Jessica Ortiz ’05 Federal Judicial Fellowship Award

Placement: Hon. Julio M. Fuentes, United States Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit

Location: Newark, NJ (Remote)

One important lesson I have learned from this fellowship: “This internship was a reminder that we are all human; imperfect people trying to do what we believe is right and just, but from different points in our own journeys.”