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Students in D.C. externship program receive Congressional coaching

June 02, 2011

Imagine a course that culminates not in a written exam but in your oral presentation to a U.S. congressman of an idea for a bill, on which you received coaching from a U.S. senator and other legislative experts. This was the experience of students in the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law’s Washington, D.C., Legal Externship program during the 2011 spring semester.

Students presented their ideas for new laws to Rep. David Schweikert, R-Ariz., as part of the program’s course, Legislative Advocacy and the Law, taught by Professor Orde Kittrie. Each student was assigned to come up with an idea for a change to U.S. law and write a draft bill, testimony in support of the bill, and a legislative strategy paper analyzing the problem their bill was designed to solve, how their bill would solve it, and setting forth coalition-building and media strategies for getting their bill passed.

Third-year law student Jonathan Ocana called the Legislative Advocacy course “an extraordinary opportunity to research your own bill idea on an issue you care about, develop a strategy for how to move it forward in light of budgetary and other real-world constraints, think about how to make it appealing to a member of Congress, and then actually pitch it to a member of Congress and have him provide helpful tips in response.”

Rep. Schweikert heard short presentations from each of the students on their legislative ideas, including: amending U.S. law governing international child abduction, enhancing online privacy, regulating genetic susceptibility tests, strengthening Medicare’s authority to study new medical technologies, amending the Patriot Act, improving regulation of derivatives, revising joint filing to include marriage-like relationships, promoting instruction on tolerance, updating blood donation regulations, and replacing some mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses with diversion. The session occurred in a hearing room of the Rayburn Office Building of the U.S. House of Representatives.

Schweikert told the class he was looking for great ideas for legislative initiatives, and hoped they wouldn’t mind him introducing some of them as bills. He responded to each student’s presentation with at least one question or suggestion, raising questions about the constitutionality of some of the bills, asking what provisions of existing law a student was planning to amend and focusing especially on how much the proposals would cost.

Schweikert seemed impressed with several of the student proposals. After Ocana presented his proposal for a change to current law, Schweikert said he had been at a meeting earlier in the day on what to do about that same issue, and asked Ocana for a copy of his paper. In response to a proposal by student Rachel Lindor, Schweikert asked an aide to jot down the idea “because I might want to borrow it.”

“Presenting our bill ideas to Congressman Schweikert was a tremendous experience,” Lindor said. “I learned a lot from his comments on not only my bill idea but those of my classmates. His responses helped crystallize one of the most valuable lessons I learned from the Legislative Advocacy course and then applied to my externship: that getting your policy idea adopted depends not only on its substantive merits but also on how effectively you position the idea within the larger political landscape, including by anticipating and defusing opposition to it.”

Another highlight of the course was a visit with Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., in his Congressional office. Kyl was named by Time Magazine in 2010 as one of the 100 most influential people in the world. Kyl gave students his personal perspectives on the legislative process and getting legislation passed. The senator provided examples from several key legislative battles of recent years including those over immigration reform and ratification of the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty. Kyl also provided students “grandfatherly” advice on how to career building.

Second-year law student Jason Burgoyne said that the meeting with Kyl “was an uncommon opportunity to receive candid advice and insight on real world strategies for legislative success from one of the most influential people in the world.”

Third-year law student Sara Cummings said that the Legislative Advocacy course, including the meeting with Kyl, “helped de-mystify the work of Congress” for her by providing insight into the importance of developing sophisticated strategies to address such factors as coalition-building, political timing, and pressures from colleagues of the same party, opponents from the other party, and constituents.

Earlier in the semester, the students heard from Jim Flug, former chief counsel to the late Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., who described his work beating back a Congressional attack on the U.S. Supreme Court’s “one man, one vote” decision. Flug also described his subsequent work as executive director of the National Legal Aid & Defender Association, in which capacity he helped promote adoption of the Legal Services Corporation Act, funding legal aid to the poor.

Other highlights of the course included visits by various legislative experts including a former senior legislative attorney for the CIA. Guest speakers described their experiences advancing legislation from idea to enactment, and shared with the class the lessons learned along the way.

“The Legislative Advocacy course was pivotal to my success in the externship,” said Ocana, who was hired by the U.S. Department of Transportation at the end of his externship there. “Much of the work we do at the Department of Transportation requires us to approach issues from both a legal and a policy perspective.

“This course, unlike the more theoretical courses I took in the rest of law school, taught me how to work in the real world, including how to research and deploy facts, how to identify and factor in political constraints, and how to communicate legal issues to policymakers.”

Since the program began in Spring 2010, students have worked in numerous federal agencies, including the Departments of State, Justice, Defense, Transportation, and Health & Human Services, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Federal Communications Commission and the Securities and Exchange Commission, and in several Congressional offices and at nonprofit organizations. Several externships have resulted in permanent employment.

Students in the Spring 2011 semester also participated in special activities, including a tour of the U.S. Department of State and a meeting there with Evelyn Aswad, the Assistant Legal Adviser for Human Rights and Refugees, who described her work as the department’s top attorney focused on international human rights.

The program welcomes applications from students at ABA-accredited law schools across the United States, and is offered in partnership with the Washington Center for Internships and Academic Seminars, a nonprofit educational organization that has ongoing relationships with 500 American colleges and universities and provides internships and academic seminars for more than 1,500 students each year.