Participating in externships and clerkships is a critical way for law students to gain insight into real world law practice. However, when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, many law students lost their summer externship opportunities due to budget cuts, uncertain court schedules and social distancing mandates. Upon hearing this, Ana Maria Martinez (J.D. ’09), president and co-founder of the Georgia Latino Law Foundation, gathered a group of judges and attorneys to create the Summer Virtual Judicial Internship program for law students across the state to gain experience.
“I was very troubled by all the reports of cancelled summer internships,” said Martinez. “I know how important these opportunities can be both in terms of personal and professional development and potential full-time employment.”
As part of the program, 26 law students have had the opportunity to witness virtual court hearings and gain a better understanding of how various judges interpret the law. Eight of those students are enrolled at Georgia State College of Law. In addition, each student is required to conduct a major research assignment on a legal issue arising from the COVID-19 pandemic.
Leila Fawaz, a rising second-year law student, spent her summer clerkship with Judge Sara Doyle in the Georgia Court of Appeals. Fawaz says the experience made her Lawyering Foundations and Lawyering Advocacy classes come to life. For her research project, she looked at the statutory, regulatory and contractual restrictions on health data dissemination and collection to address COVID-19 risks. However, her biggest takeaway was the building relationships.
“It’s cool and surprising to see how judges are normal people, too,” Fawaz said. “Judge Doyle is hilarious and so down to earth, which opened my eyes to be less intimidated by judges from now on.”
Wesley Billiot, a rising third-year law student, was also nervous at first, but clicked with Chief Judge Linda Cowen in the Clayton County State Court almost immediately. As a health law student, he was interested in seeing how the courts handle a variety of healthcare issues, and says that it was eye-opening to see how few resources are available to the courts to assist individuals with mental illnesses who run into legal trouble. He chose to do his research project on the following question: “If an attorney or participant in court proceedings is exposed to COVID-19 at the courthouse while there to attend proceedings scheduled by the court, does that individual have a cause of action for alleged negligence against the judge who set up that court proceedings, given judicial immunity law?”
Giving students the opportunity to investigate these types of important questions that Martinez had in mind when the Georgia Latino Law Foundation created the program. Her hope is that this year will serve as a pilot for future clerkships and that they will be able to find more partners.
“We ended up with a super diverse class of interns, and one of my favorite things has been seeing how many of them (who had never before had any exposure to the judiciary) are now interested in pursuing clerkships after graduation and/or becoming judges one day,” said Martinez. “Increasing diversity in the profession and, specifically, in the judiciary has been one of my goals for a long time and this has been an unexpected outcome that has made me very happy.”