Olivia Alperstein, Class of 2014
This summer I worked as an investigator intern for The Legal Aid Society. Over ten and a half weeks, I had the privilege of gaining a firsthand, up-close look at some of the flaws of the legal system in the U.S., while gaining valuable experience regarding due process and public interest law. As an investigator intern, I helped compile testimony, interview witnesses and clients, examine crime scenes, research prior case histories, and conduct background checks, among other tasks. The internship emphasizes fieldwork over legal work; I got to examine physical evidence and make important discoveries that were often critical to the case, while learning about aspects of the law directly through my experience.
All interns go through a week-long training and orientation process, which includes introductions to various types of law and procedures, as well as practical hands-on training regarding fieldwork and safety. Each of us was paired with a fellow intern and assigned to a specific supervisor in a specific practice in one of the five boroughs of New York. I worked in the juvenile rights practice in Manhattan, with clients 21 years old or younger; the case we worked on were usually child protective or custody, abuse and neglect, educational neglect, or delinquency cases. Family court law and practice is very different from criminal and civil law and practice; although family court defendants may be tried for similar offenses, often family court judges form their rulings with the ultimate goal of rehabilitation and implementation of services to address specific issues. There is often a different understanding of punitive judgment in regard to children and their parents.
As part of my internship, I got to watch various stages of trials regarding various types of cases, and we attended various lunch sessions with people who play different roles in the family court process- social workers, judges, Administration for Children's Services (ACS) workers, police officers, corporate counsel, as well as lawyers within special divisions of the Legal Aid practice. WE had the opportunity to ask them about specific issues and hear their perspectives on problems with family court and due process. We also visited practices in different boroughs, and visited specific courts such as arraignment courts and drug treatment courts that we would not necessarily access as part of our daily work in the internship.
The majority of our time was spent on assignments. Some investigator interns were assigned to specific attorneys, while others, like me, were actually assigned to an investigator for a specific practice. The interns who were paired with lawyers worked only on cases assigned to those lawyers; those of us paired with an investigator worked on any assignment that was requested by any attorney in the practice. Our assignments varied greatly; our hours did as well. Each day brought new tasks and assignments, and because my supervisor encouraged us to be independent, soon my fellow intern and I were working independently on assignments. All the cases are nuanced and complex, and often working on these cases is an emotional experience, especially when you see firsthand the harsh realities so many of the clients and their families face on a daily basis.
If found that often, the efforts of Legal Aid workers, even in terms of something so basic as searching the prior history of a complainant witness or asking further questions of a person who saw something on the street, can mean the difference between justice upheld and justice denied for a low-income client and the client's family. Low-income clients' perspectives and situations are so far removed from anything one might encounter in a legal internship at private law firm. Even if one is looking specifically to go into private law practice and has no interest in public interest law, working for an organization like Legal Aid nevertheless provides great relative perspective and will expand the scope of one's understanding of the practice of law.
I myself found a passion for public interest law as a result of this internship, and it strengthened my resolve to become a public advocate. I would recommend this internship to those who are willing to dedicate the time and effort to this specific type of service, because what you do at this internship really does make a difference to the people involved, and that difference is immediately apparent; your effort or lack thereof directly impacts the outcome of cases. It's true that the overall justice system is flawed, and that Legal Aid is an organization that suffers from the state of its funding, but nevertheless Legal Aid makes great strides to reduce the impact of the flaws in the system, as well as to eliminate those flaws on a policy level. This is a summer experience I will never forget, and I feel so grateful for the knowledge and perspective that this internship brought me.