Grace Powell and Mariette Peltier are second-year students at the University of Virginia School of Law. Prior to law school, Grace worked as a Community Intake Advocate at the Neighborhood Defender Service of Harlem for three years—an experience which inspired her to attend law school to become a public defender. During college, Mariette interned for the Human Trafficking & Transnational/Organized Crime Section of the Texas Attorney General’s Office. She came to law school to become a sex crimes prosecutor. Both women are fellows in the Program in Law & Public Service and are active in UVA Law’s public service community.
Last summer, Grace interned at the Federal Defenders of the Southern District of New York. Mariette interned at the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of Texas. After reuniting at UVA Law last fall, both women reflected on their experiences working on different sides of the courtroom.
Q: What was a typical day at your summer internship like?
Grace: The intern class was small–there were five of us–and that meant that we got to be involved with lots of different projects throughout the summer. My days were spent doing research for cases that were coming up, to try to find affirmative defenses, explore police misconduct and help attorneys understand the previous case law on certain issues. The cases we focused on ranged from immigration to child pornography to gun possession, so the legal issues were varied and interesting. I also got to work with clients, doing interviews with attorneys for incoming cases, and spend time in court, following a few cases through and watching how both federal and magistrate and district judges assessed and ruled on evidence and motions, both from the bench and in later rulings. S.D.N.Y also runs a pretty awesome trial training program, and the attorneys–who are amazing advocates and skilled litigators–taught us how to cross-examine witnesses, present opening statements and come up with a cohesive theme for defending a client.
Mariette: Every day was very different. At my office, interns weren’t assigned to specific divisions or attorneys; instead, the interns were encouraged to seek out the projects that they wanted to work on. We could choose to take on as many or as few projects as we wanted throughout the summer, which gave me a lot of control over the quantity and content of my work. This structure allowed me to work on projects for the criminal, appellate, and civil sections. Within the criminal section, my work touched almost every topic imaginable, including drugs, guns, white collar fraud, human trafficking, child pornography, and national security. My work product also varied based on the assignment: sometimes I did pure legal research, sometimes I wrote memos or motions, and sometimes I assisted with pre-indictment investigative work or trial preparation. The AUSAs also encouraged the interns to attend court frequently so I saw a lot of hearings and trials throughout the summer.
Q: After your prior experiences at the state level, why did you decide to spend a summer interning for a federal office?
Grace: I hope to pursue a career in state level defense, but definitely wanted to see how the federal level was different. I ended up loving it and would definitely want to consider applying to work as a federal defender in the future.
Mariette: I knew that I would eventually need to choose whether to pursue a career in federal or state prosecution, and I wanted that choice to be an informed one. Because my experience prior to law school was at the state level, spending my first summer in the federal system seemed like the natural choice.
How was your experience in federal prosecution/defense different than your experience at the state level?
Grace: As a paralegal at the Neighborhood Defender Service of Harlem, my days were spent entirely with clients, handling intakes and pre-arrest advocacy. At SDNY, I split time between working with clients and researching and writing memos and motions, which ended up really helping me clarify that I also love that aspect of defense, and hope to pursue federal defense at some point in the future. The attorneys had much more time to devote to each case, and that meant I really felt like by the end of preparation on a case, I really understood the legal issues the attorney I was working with was dealing with.
Mariette: My experience at the federal level was much more writing intensive than my internship at the state level. Part of that was due to the fact that I was a law student, with more knowledge of legal research, writing, and citation practices, during my time at the federal level, while I was only an undergrad during my state-level internship–passionate to be sure, but less equipped to dive into complex research and writing assignments. But another reason for that difference is that the outcome of a case in the federal system seems to be driven more by written pretrial motions and preparation than by what occurs at the trial itself. I was surprised by the amount of time and preparation that AUSAs were able to put into every part of a case, from pre-indictment investigations to the trial and sentencing proceedings.
Q: What was the most challenging aspect of your work last summer?
Grace: The hardest thing is to see the way our system targets people of color and low socioeconomic status, in who police arrest, who prosecutors charge, and the way those people are sentenced. Federal defense was no different than state level defense in that way, except that the charges were more serious and the sentences more devastating to our clients, their families and their communities. In addition, many of our clients were dealing with immigration issues as well, and because of the way that system is structured, there are times when defense attorneys have no way to prevent deportation, despite dangerous circumstances in a client’s home country or the damage that deportation might do to their husbands, wives and children.
Mariette: There’s always a feeling that you’re not doing enough. I was privy to some truly heinous cases last summer, but at the same time, I knew how many other terrible cases were out there that weren’t being reported and/or prosecuted. That’s a sobering thought. But reframing my focus to realize that every case that I worked on made a difference to someone and adhering to the metaphor that you “eat an elephant one bite at a time” helped me focus on the potential that one prosecutor has to do justice in the world.
What is the most valuable thing that you learned last summer?
Grace: I think that improving my research and writing, as well as the trial training program, was really valuable for me. The fact that SDNY didn’t assign us to one attorney but let us move from attorney to attorney as we worked on projects meant I got a really good sense of different styles of trials and of writing, and that was pretty cool.
Mariette: Last summer confirmed for me that I came to law school for the right reason–that becoming a prosecutor really is my dream. During my first year, I watched my friends pursue different paths and questioned whether I was making the right career choice by foregoing firm practice to dive straight into public service. But this internship helped confirm for me that it’s okay that my dreams will lead me a little off-the-beaten path because they are leading me to a place where I feel like I’m making a meaningful contribution to the world. And to me, that’s the most important thing.