Law students say D.C. program is a life-changing experience
The initial class of law students in the Washington, D.C., Legal Externship Program called it a life-changing experience, with rewarding professional assignments, exciting personal connections and challenging coursework, all with the backdrop of Capitol Hill and one of the most vibrant cities in the world.
Fall applications have tripled for the program, run by the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law at Arizona State University in partnership with The Washington Center for Internships and Academic Seminars.
Chris Huffaker, a third-year law student at The University of Tulsa College of Law who worked in the offices of U.S. Rep. John Boozman (R-Arkansas), said the semester was invaluable, giving him real-world experience in the complexity of political wrangling and policy formation.
“I had absolutely zero political savvy,” Huffaker said. “It was humbling. But my office had a tremendous amount of patience and, by the end of the externship, even they would tell you that I made progress.”
Huffaker said he worked on bills and resolutions, including follow-up and support, did a lot of work on health care reform, and briefed Boozman’s legislative assistant on the Comcast-NBC Universal merger and the legal standard involved.
The externship program allows law students from around the country to take courses from nationally renowned faculty and distinguished policy leaders in Washington, D.C., while also getting practical experience and a foothold in the competitive D.C. legal market through supervised externships with governmental and not-for-profit entities.
Huffaker, who worked last summer in the Walmart legal department at the corporation’s Arkansas headquarters, and at Friday, Eldredge & Clark, the largest law firm in Arkansas, said he built valuable connections in D.C.
“I had the opportunity to meet with a lot of well-respected people,” he said. “It was a good opportunity to build relationships, which is part of the political process.”
Professor Orde Kittrie, director of the program, said that politics, the business of Washington, D.C., is all about relationships.
“I have encouraged students in the program to use their time in D.C. to build their professional networks,” Kittrie said. “Chris did a particularly good job of building on his home-state connections to enhance his professional network in D.C.
“It seems like every time I spoke with him, he had just had lunch with another prominent D.C. attorney. I’d ask him how he made the connection, and the answer was almost always the same: It was somebody to whom he had been introduced by the folks he worked for at the Walmart legal department.”
Huffaker was one of two Arkansas residents in the program, the other being Holly Wilson, a student from the University of Arkansas School of Law, who externed with Transparency International. They were joined by students from ASU, Florida and Kentucky.
Students worked 36 hours per week in an externship at a governmental entity or non-profit organization and took one or two classes in the evening, including Legislative Advocacy and the Law, taught by Kittrie.
In that course, students learned about the legislative process and drafted a legislative strategy package that included analysis of a public policy problem that could be addressed by legislation, a draft bill implementing their proposed solution to the problem, and strategies for building support for the bill through a media campaign, grassroots advocacy and coalition building. The students also wrote testimony in support of their proposed bills and presented it in class.
“The goal was for the students to both learn about the legislative process and develop the tools and confidence they need to make a difference on issues they care about,” Kittrie said.
The students also heard from a diverse lineup of guest speakers experienced with the legislative process, most of whom described to the students how they had come up with ideas for new laws and then successfully designed and implemented strategies for getting the laws enacted.
The speakers included a former vice president of government relations for H&R Block; the director of government relations for a major medical association; the former director of congressional affairs for the CIA; a senior congressional staff member; and an attorney who previously served as editorial page editor of a major newspaper.
“Our Washington, D.C., Externship Program offers an incredible immersion into the national policymaking arena, and because we bring together students from a wide range of law schools, the program also creates a unique opportunity for students from around the country to form permanent connections,” said Dean Paul Schiff Berman of the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law.
Michael-Corey Hinton, a second-year law student at the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law, spent his semester at the U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, where he worked closely with alumna Allison Binney (Class of 2000), staff director and chief counsel, and Sen. Byron Dorgan, (D-N.D.), chairman of the Committee.
“I helped draft parts of legislative reports, wrote memos and materials for committee hearings and helped develop talking points for the senator,” Hinton said. “The bulk of my work was on energy issues. With the climate bill coming through Congress, the Committee is preparing an Indian energy bill.”
Hinton said his biggest surprise was the infinitely complex structure of the legislative process.
“When I was a kid we learned the “Schoolhouse Roc” song about how a bill becomes a law – the bill is written, each house votes on it and it goes to the president. But there are so many layers and levels to that process. It’s surprisingly complex and difficult.”
Gian Duran, a second-year law student at ASU, worked in the trade policy and economics section at the Canadian Embassy.
“I just recently finished researching a bill about currency manipulation,” Duran said. “I’ve learned so much about the world of international trade and how it plays out subject to the economy, more than I could have learned anywhere else.”
Duran said that going to Washington, D.C., was the only way to get experience in international trade, and that he has been won over to big-city possibilities.
“It’s an amazing city,” Duran said. “Everybody is passionate about something. It helps you find something you want to do, your grand goal in life.”
Duran said one of his most memorable moments was at one of the Canadian Embassy’s monthly receptions at which the Canadian Supreme Court hosted the U.S. Supreme Court.
“I had wine with five justices of our Supreme Court,” he said.
Zahava Essig, a third-year student at the Florida Coastal School of Law in Jacksonville, where she is earning a certificate in the environmental law program, worked at the Climate Institute, a non-profit organization that promotes global climate balance with practical and cooperative approaches.
Essig researched the issue of black carbon, commonly known as soot, which has been identified as a major factor in regional warming, particularly affecting the snow packs in the Himalayas, the North and South poles and California.
Essig said her coursework in legislative advocacy dovetailed perfectly, and she worked to put together a package about black carbon.
“I feel very privileged to be here,” Essig said. “I saw the presidential motorcade going down the street every day. It was fantastic.”
Jared Allen, a second-year law student at ASU, interned in the U.S. Department of Justice, in the aviation and admiralty branch of the civil division, which deals with the Federal Tort Claims Act. Allen said he drafted motions, wrote memos, did legal research and sat in on depositions of expert witnesses.
“I’ve been flying since I was about 14, and I was interested in aviation law,” Allen said. “There are only so many places where you can practice that, mostly at the Department of Justice.”
All said they hope to work in D.C., at least for awhile.
“It’s good experience that’s applicable to any field, as a lawyer, lobbyist, if I wanted to go back to Walmart and work my way up the corporate ladder,” Huffaker said. “You don’t narrow your opportunities in D.C., you only expand them.”
Judy Nichols, Judith.Nichols@asu.edu
Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law