From client counseling to brief writing, Brandeis Law 3L gains experience during NYC internship

From client counseling to brief writing, Brandeis Law 3L gains experience during NYC internship

Devon Skeens

Brandeis Law rising 3L Devon Skeens is spending his summer as a intern with the New York City Office of the Appellate Defender.

One of only three interns in the office, he has spent his summer working on legal briefs. Here, he takes the time to share about his experience, including what it's been like to work in the country's largest legal market and what he's learned about the power of a succinct argument.

Can you describe some of the tasks you do on a typical day?

Here at the Office of the Appellate Defender, the three summer interns are each given two legal briefs to work on throughout the summer. The first brief contains fewer or less-complex legal issues, where we’re basically begging for a sentence reduction "in the interest of justice."

The second brief always contains more substantial issues of law (constitutional violations, due process issues, erroneous evidentiary rulings, etc.). 

I work on one of these two briefs basically every day for 10 weeks, which should speak to the level of time and care that is put into each case.

What is the most rewarding project you have worked on this summer?
My excessive sentence brief is for a client who I legitimately believe was given an undue punishment for her crime. I have had the opportunity to actually meet with her in prison and counsel her through the legal arguments that we plan to make on her behalf.

When you have a client who has suffered grave hardship at the hands of an antiquated and overtly political criminal justice system, nothing can be more rewarding than the look on their face when — while reading your brief — they realize that the cavalry is finally here to get their back.

What skills have you gained during this internship that will serve you in your career?
I’ve had the opportunity to have my work meticulously scrutinized by attorneys who practice in the premier criminal appeals organization in the nation’s largest legal market. There is no doubt in my mind that this has exponentially improved my ability to present written legal arguments.

Additionally, OAD has given me the incredible opportunity to participate in preparation for oral arguments, and even encouraged me to attend when they are finally presented to the court. OAD also allows interns to orally argue their own briefs before the Appellate Division, so you can bet that I’ll definitely be coming back later in the year.

What has surprised you most about appellate work?
Because this city is so large, courts are dramatically overburdened. It’s not uncommon for oral arguments to be limited to five minutes for each side. It’s also unlikely that the court is always able to give each brief the time and effort that it likely deserves.

These realities quickly force attorneys into a Garner-esque exercise in determining the best arguments for their client and presenting them as succinctly and powerfully as possible. Surprisingly, discussions are often centered on what language can be cut from the brief, rather than throwing everything at the wall to see what sticks.

What advice do you have for other law students who want to pursue opportunities in large markets?
A few things: 

1. Work on your writing. Your cover letter is the first opportunity that organizations have to hear the voice of the person they might hire. Your writing should convey your voice, and it should always be technically accurate in every way. Use your professors!

2. Put in the work to apply everywhere. It may mean writing a hundred different cover letters, but it’s important that you cast a wide net, and it’s important that every organization feels as though they are the only place you have ever wanted to work. 

3. Don’t listen to those who tell you that it’s impossible. It’s definitely impossible if you never try.