Learning to Prosecute
For law students looking to practice criminal law at the highest possible level, there can be a dearth of opportunities when it comes to getting the sort of practical, real-world experience that makes a person an appealing candidate. Students who hope to work in the federal criminal courts, for example, are restricted by rule from receiving a temporary bar card that would allow them to prosecute or defend cases. For the most part, the only option for students seeking that kind of experience was to seek an internship that would allow them to do just that in state court—but that doesn’t give students the chance to pick up the intricacies of the federal criminal justice system.
“In state court, we send students to prosecutor and defenders offices, where they can get certified to try a misdemeanor case,” said Professor Susan Klein, Alice McKean Young Regents Chair in Law. “But they can’t do that at the federal level.”
Klein, who spent four years as a prosecutor through the Department of Justice’s Honors Program, sought to find a way to give students the opportunity to do the next best thing. She and Anthony Brown, ’86, chief assistant United States attorney for the Austin Division of the Western District of Texas, created the U.S. Attorney Internship Program and the Advanced Criminal Prosecution Seminar, which offer students an unprecedented level of access to work in the Austin district office. “They do everything but argue in court,” Klein said.
The program is now in its sixth year, and, given the excitement it’s generated among students at the Law School, has grown quickly into a highly-desired seminar. And while Klein stresses just how much of an advantage it is to students at the Law School to have this opportunity, and the amount of hard work that keeping the program going requires of Brown—“There’s a lot of time and effort on his part that goes into training those students,” she said, “He spends much more time training them than the amount he gets back in labor”—the chief U.S. attorney has a slightly different perspective on what the students contribute to his office—and it goes beyond just contributing their talents and abilities.
“These are very talented students,” Brown said. “And frankly, over the years, they’ve made some tremendous contributions to some of our trials. They bring a non-prosecution perspective to what we do, and they’re an interesting sounding board. That’s not their intent—they’re actually just asking legitimate questions—but those are the questions we need to factor in and explore. They’re not prosecutors, and as we’re talking about what’s going on as we’re putting together the indictment, they start asking questions about things that I may have assumed were clear.”
Essentially, Brown said, “It’s a win-win for us. We get to take advantage of their talents and abilities, and their outside perspective.”
That “win-win” situation came about because of a relationship between the Law School and the U.S. Attorney’s Office that Klein describes as “wonderful.” The program has evolved in order to take full advantage of the mutually-beneficial aspects of the partnership.
Initially, according to Klein, the relationship involved students working in the U.S. Attorney’s Office as interns. But, because of the rules of the American Bar Association and the American Association of Law Schools, those internships were uncredited. “You’re supposed to have a lot of oversight on students before we give them credit, so we weren’t giving them class credit for participating in those internships,” she explained. “We eventually decided that that was a mistake—these were wonderful opportunities, and they should receive credit.” To that end, Klein and Brown worked together to supervise, with Brown deciding to supervise the interns himself. “It evolved from a one-semester program into a year-long internship with the [Advanced Criminal Prosecution] course to go with it,” she said. “There are a lot of costs involved in making sure that the interns have gone through a clearance process—they have to have an FBI background check before they can go in, and it requires a lot of time and effort. We decided to make it a year-long internship so they could actually become useful [to the U.S. Attorney’s Office]. It takes a few months before they understand what the office is, and what they should be doing.”
As Brown found himself working more closely and more directly with the interns, the Advanced Criminal Prosecution class was born as well. “He was doing so much substantive teaching, it became clear to us that we needed a class,” Klein said, and it’s grown quickly in popularity. While there are only four interns working in the program each year, the class is open to a wider selection of students at the Law School—though still not as many as may want to take it. “We started it for the interns, and then opened it up as a full seminar. Every year since we started it six years ago, we’ve had sixteen students, and we’ve had to turn them away once we hit sixteen. The Law School won’t allow us to take more than that. Most classes, you get twelve,” she explains. “We’ve lobbied for twenty-four on the theory that there are two of us.”
Teaching at the Law School isn’t something that had been a particular ambition of Brown’s when the program started, but that isn’t to say that the experience of being in the classroom hasn’t been rewarding to him. “I did a couple of semesters teaching in Minnesota on a couple of things,” he said, “But it wasn’t a long-term goal of mine. I do teach the Department of Justice’s National Advocacy Center at the University of South Carolina, where they teach young prosecutors—and sometimes more experienced ones, depending on the subject matter—but I’m not a professor by trade.”
With all of that in mind, though, the chief of the U.S. Attorney’s Office seems to have taken well to having the title “Professor” appended to his name for the weekly seminar that he co-teaches with Klein. “After talking to Susan, we kind of put together this class to be an interesting offering,” he said. “Without question, working with younger law students has value to me.”
For those students, the value is obvious, as well. The interns for the 2011 school year are Ingrid Grobey, Drew Pennebaker, Michael Vitris, and Della Sentilles, and they all express excitement at the opportunity to get such rare experience in a highly competitive field.
Vitris came to the program after having worked at two prosecution offices at the state level. “I’d never worked at the federal level,” he said, “And I always wanted to work in a U.S. Attorney’s Office. I want to be a federal prosecutor, eventually, but they’re not really soliciting applications.”
Pennebaker echoes his sentiment about the difficulty in finding opportunities for the average Law School graduate to work at such a high level—and that’s one of the things that appealed to him about the internship. “Given how hard it is to get in there, to be able to have some experience in an office like this, when you do go and apply—to say, ‘I’ve actually worked for a year in the Austin Office in the Western Division’ really is meaningful when you’re trying to set yourself apart from the rest of the massive pool that’s trying to get into the U.S. Attorney’s Office.”
Added Grobey, “The office that we work in is an office that a lot of people would like to work in at some point in their careers. It’s really hard to get a job there, so it’s neat, from my perspective, to get inside those four walls and see what’s going on in there. To get in there at this stage in our lives and careers is really cool.”
It’s not just about the foot-in-the-door aspect of gaining experience for the interns, though, of course. One of the most exciting things for the interns is the opportunity to learn in a hands-on way. “There’s nothing that compares to the experience you get when you’re doing actual work, versus being in a classroom and learning,” Sentilles said. “There just isn’t. Once you’re a 3L and you’re taking classes, you see the rules, and you see how they practically apply to the work that you’re doing, but I think there’s something about actually drafting your first indictment, your second indictment, your third indictment, where it becomes common knowledge to you.” That helps the interns grow not just as job candidates—though that’s certainly an important part of it—but as quality lawyers and, potentially, prosecutors down the line.
Of course, not all of the interns, or the students in the seminar, end up actually working as prosecutors. Though some do, that’s not a prerequisite for the program. Brown explained, “Of our past interns, at least three of them are current assistant U.S. attorneys, and we have a good number of state prosecutors. But I’ve had people who’ve told me—even my interns—who’ve said, ‘I have no interest in criminal law.’ And that’s fine—that’s not the goal. We’re not trying to recruit prosecutors here.” Still, according to Brown, it’s not a shock anymore when even those students get in touch with him later on. “At least two of the students from the seminar have graduated from Law School, went into major law firms on the East Coast, and then wrote to me and said, ‘I’d like to become a prosecutor. What’s the best route to take, and how do I do that?’ That exposure to the criminal justice system really gets them to reevaluate their long- and short-term goals.”
For this year’s current crop of interns, that trajectory seems less likely—all four of them seem interested in working in the criminal justice system, whether as federal or state prosecutors, defense attorneys, or even something else entirely. “I came into it from a different background—I’ve been doing international criminal prosecution, for war crimes criminals,” explained Sentilles. “That’s also a very hard field to get into.”
Despite these different ambitions—Sentilles’s interest in international prosecution differs from Vitris’s goal to be a U.S. attorney, and Pennebaker is interested in criminal law more broadly—one thing that unites all of the interns is that they’re drawn to criminal law as an avenue to pursue justice. “Criminal law is an area where you can pursue abstract notions of justice,” Pennebaker said. “Here, especially at the federal level, you really do get the sense that everybody there is united behind the same mission, which is to put the bad guys away, and to do it in a just fashion. It’s not to skimp, or play procedural games, or to pull one over on the defendant or the defense attorney—it’s playing fair and doing justice, and that doesn’t really exist any place else you’re going to get to go and do some law practicing in Law School.”
These somewhat complex philosophical underpinnings attract a particularly thoughtful type of student, and so far the interns haven’t been disappointed by what they’ve found at the U.S. Attorney’s Office. “What really appeals to me is that the people you are working with have such integrity about them,” Sentilles said. “It’s complicated—some people are pretty nasty guys, and some are veterans with PTSD that got into meth and started dealing, so it can be hard to stomach. But the people you’re working with are trying to uphold the law and be good citizens, and that’s something that is so incredible about criminal law.”
Ultimately, that’s the reason why anyone chooses to pursue criminal law, which isn’t likely to be the most lucrative practice that an attorney can have. It’s also not something that gets lost, even decades into a career as a prosecutor. When he talks about it, even Brown sounds as passionate and enthusiastic about the field as the interns do. “One of the reasons I keep doing my job is to see that justice is done,” he said. “That’s the right thing to do, and I really get to go home feeling like I did the right thing. The defendant might disagree, or others in the community might disagree, but if someone does something wrong, I get to pursue that. And if the facts later prove that they didn’t, then I get to withdraw them from it, and I’ve done the right thing. When the students get to see that, it becomes a very interesting area for them to consider.”—Dan Solomon