By: Michael Lang ‘23
First, I want to sincerely thank Francis and Cindy Letro for their generous donation to the University at Buffalo School of Law Public Interest Fellowship. Through this award, I was able to pursue my passion for public service and the mission for equal justice under the law during the Summer of 2022. Without the freedom that this fellowship allowed me, I would not have been able to fully dedicate my time, focus, and energy to serving the community of Monroe County.
This summer I had the privilege of working for the Monroe County District Attorney’s Office in the Public Corruption and Economic Crimes Bureau. During my time with the Public Corruption and Economic Crimes Bureau I was exposed to the most sensitive and high-profile criminal prosecutions in Monroe County. The attorneys working on those cases were some of the most experienced and well-respected prosecutors in Monroe County. Learning from them was a privilege. In addition, I was assigned to the Local Courts Bureau. While my experience in the Public Corruption and Economic Crimes Bureau would be a rich source of fascinating material for this blog, I want to discuss my work in the Local Courts Bureau. I feel that my time in the Local Courts Bureau is where I personally grew as a young attorney.
In the Local Courts Bureau, I was authorized to make appearances in court under a temporary practice order. Under the supervision of the local ADA’s, I was assigned as a Co-ADA in Rush Town Court and Pittsford Town Court. Initially, I was overwhelmed at how fast things moved in the Monroe County District Attorney’s Office. On my first day in the office, I spoke with the Chief of the Local Courts Bureau. She asked me what kind of responsibility I wanted this summer, and whether I would be interested in working in the town courts. I said yes, and she immediately helped me prepare a practice order application and submitted it to the Appellate Division Fourth Department for approval. Just one week later, I was told that my application was approved, and I was being assigned to Rush Town Court. I then learned that my first appearance was in two days. I did not know what to expect, or what would be expected of me. The Bureau Chief assuaged my fears by telling me “Not to worry” because “you will start off doing traffic tickets, and the first day you can just observe local ADA go through the docket.” I was then given a doorstop sized book on New York State Vehicle & Traffic Law, a brown accordion folder, a copy of that week’s docket, and I was sent on my way.
Anxious to begin, I arrived at Rush Town Court thirty minutes early. I wanted to introduce myself to the court staff and let them know I would be appearing in their court for the next two months. They were incredibly friendly and offered to introduce me to the judge. I agreed, and they escorted me into the judge’s chambers. I introduced myself and told the judge that I was a law student intern with the District Attorney’s Office, and I am authorized to appear in court under a practice order. I made sure the judge knew that I was merely observing court this week, and from then on, I will be working as the Co-ADA. The judge looked at me sternly and replied, “no you won’t.” I was confused. I didn’t know if I should call my supervisor to clear things up, or whether that was his way of asking me to leave. The judge broke the awkward silence and said to me, “look, I was an educator for 40 years before I became a judge, the only way you are going to learn is by doing, you can observe all you want, but you will not learn that way. Today I want you to handle the entire docket, and you can ask me if you need help or have questions.” This was my worst fear. I was only planning on observing the ADA for the day, and I had never even watched local court proceedings. However, I had no choice but to reluctantly agree.
When the judge told me I would handle the entire docket, this was not an exaggeration. For the next two hours that is exactly what occurred. Under the supervision of the judge, the clerk, and the assigned ADA, I somehow managed the entire local court docket. My initial responsibilities were straightforward. I was presented with a traffic ticket, and I determined whether the ticket was eligible for a reduction, and if so, I offered the defendant a plea. If the plea was accepted, the ticket was disposed. If the plea offer was denied, the case went to a traffic trial.
Regardless of how simple this process appears; I was nervous and anxious the entire time. This was the first time in my life that I was appearing on the record, in front of a real judge, in a real court, and with a real defendant whose matter needed to be resolved. On that first day, there were several occasions where I stopped the proceedings, and asked to speak with the judge to clarify an issue. Every time I asked for help, I felt embarrassed that I was slowing things down. I started to feel guilty that everyone was taking their time to teach me basic court procedures. For some reason I began to speak in a whisper, and this caused the judge to sense that I was nervous and frustrated. Halfway through the docket, I made a fairly serious mistake on a plea offer and I was asked to approach the bench. The judge looked at me and said, “you need to loosen up. I know you made this mistake because you are nervous and rushing. You might be uncomfortable, but this is the only way you learn how to practice.” I took a deep breath and at that moment things started to click. I forced myself to speak clearly and confidently. I processed what was in front of me before I acted. I realized that the time spent asking questions, slowing down, and doing things correctly was a minor trade off to rushing, making a mistake, and having to repeat the process. It was then that I started to work.
At the end of my first day in Rush Town Court, the courtroom emptied out and the staff was preparing to head home. I decided to ask the judge if I could speak with him privately. I wanted to apologize for my mistakes and let him know that I would be more prepared for the next time I appeared in his court. As I started to speak, the judge sensed my apologetic tone and interrupted me. The judge reminded me that he was a high school teacher and then a principal before he was elected. He told me there was no need to apologize for mistakes that are made when you are earnestly trying to learn something new. He continued, saying that if I shy away from risks because I am afraid of failing, I will never grow as an attorney. At the end of the conversation, I thanked him.
It is commonplace to hear from experienced attorneys that “law school does not teach you how to be a lawyer, it teaches you how to think.” This is probably true. However, I believe that law school teaches you something else which is equally important to being an attorney; law school teaches you how to learn. By teaching you how to “learn,” I mean more than just teaching you how to retain lecture material or how to apply the law to a set of facts. I mean that law school teaches you how learn something which is entirely novel. With both law school and law practice, there is no outside information or prior experience that will prepare a novice for what lays ahead. With both, you are forced to learn from the ground up. This type of learning requires you to accept that failure is inevitable. This requires humility.
I was assigned to Rush Town Court for the next two months, and the work became progressively easier after each appearance. Two weeks after I began in Rush, I was assigned to Pittsford Town Court as well. I was now appearing in two local courts each week, and the more experience I gained, the more that I wanted. While it sounds cliché to tell someone to learn from their mistakes, it also happens to be true. I can distinctly remember every mistake I made in court this summer, and I know how to avoid repeating every one of them. By the end of the summer, I felt confident entering a courtroom, speaking with a judge, and handling a case. I understand that the job of an assistant district attorney extends far beyond the experience I had this summer. The job is more complicated than demonstrating confidence and competence in a court room. But I believe that the skills I gained are foundational. Without them, there is no progress.
Name: Michael Lang ’23
Name of Fellowship: Francis M. Letro ’79 & Cindy Abbott Letro Fellowship
Placement: Monroe County District Attorney’s Office
Location: Rochester, NY
One important lesson I have learned from this fellowship: “[The judge] told me there was no need to apologize for mistakes that are made when you are earnestly trying to learn something new… if I shy away from risks because I am afraid of failing, I will never grow as an attorney.”