Program gives students firsthand experience in the legal field
St. Olaf College’s Summer Legal Scholars Program is giving seven rising seniors the opportunity to gain firsthand legal experience in university law programs across the Midwest.
The program — one of only two like it in the nation — immerses students in the legal world for six to eight weeks of intensive research and training. Participants serve law clinics at the William Mitchell College of Law, University of Minnesota, University of St. Thomas, and Drake University.
The Summer Legal Scholars Program, which began in 2010 with a $10,000 grant from the Target Foundation and is supported through an endowment established by Paul Svoboda ’81, gives students the chance to experience law school as an undergraduate.
Since its start, it has been headed by the college’s pre-law advisors: Assistant Professor of Political Science Douglas Casson and Piper Center for Vocation and Career Senior Associate Director Kirsten Cahoon ’98.
Under the direction of law students and licensed, practicing attorneys, St. Olaf students gain familiarity with the legal field by providing invaluable assistance to legal clinics devoted to serving under-resourced communities.
“I chose to apply to the Legal Scholars Program because it promised the rare opportunity of an undergraduate legal internship,” says Matthew Johnson ’14. “I thought that being placed in a law school environment while still an undergraduate would allow me to preemptively evaluate law both as an area of study and as a career, rather than making that evaluation while already a graduate.”
Gaining experience while making a difference
While the students occasionally wind up in a classroom, the majority of their time is spent with their mentors at their university’s legal clinic. These clinics play a crucial role in a law student’s training, providing hands-on learning experiences while simultaneously serving those who otherwise could not afford an attorney.
“Legal clinics provide free legal services, so most of the clients are very poor and this is their only means of accessing legal protection,” explains Derek Waller ’14, who is currently interning at the U of M Law School. “The work done in the clinics directly impacts the lives of some of the most economically disadvantaged in the state, so the work done here is very important.”
Guided by their mentoring attorneys, the students work with a variety of cases on a day-to-day basis involving criminal law, child advocacy, community justice and development, immigration law, and assistance for prisoners’ reentry.
“My daily tasks include filing and drafting documents, researching cases and statues, sitting in on client meetings, and attending court proceedings,” says Waller. “I’ve learned a ton in a short amount of time.”
The goal of the program is to provide the participants with the skills necessary to successfully enter law school, but it is also beneficial for those pursuing degrees in related fields.
By developing mentoring relationships with law faculty, the summer legal scholars hone their analytical reading, writing, and speaking skills beyond the classroom, exposing them to the rewards and difficulties of serving a law firm.
“At the Legal Services Clinic, not only am I working one-on-one with licensed, practicing attorneys, but attorneys who are also teachers,” says Gina Tonn ’14, a Summer Legal Scholar at the University of St. Thomas. “The faculty and staff here are constantly aware of my learning process as an undergraduate intern and make sure that I am working on substantive case work.”
And through the work they’re doing alongside experienced attorneys, these students are able to change lives well before taking the LSAT.
“I think what I’m most proud of with the Legal Scholars Program is just how unique it is for undergraduate pre-law students to have this kind of legal experience,” says Cahoon. “It’s a win-win for the legal clinics and our students.”