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Career Paths: 3L Michelle Gibson Gets Practice Experience in Alaska

Michelle Gibson is a 3L at Washington and Lee. She worked this past summer as a legal intern at the Alaska Public Defender Agency in the Palmer office. She is a Lead Articles Editor for the Washington and Lee Journal of Civil Rights and Social Justice. She serves as Vice-Magister for Phi Delta Phi. Upon graduation, she hopes to work as a public defender.

I’ve been fortunate enough to know that I wanted to be a Public Defender from my very first day at Washington and Lee. My first summer, spent at a public defender’s office in Virginia, only served to cement that desire. I knew that I would spend my second summer in a Public Defender office. The only question was where. The Office of Career Strategy encouraged me to apply to jobs at Equal Justice Works, a public interest career fair held every year in Washington D.C. One of the offices I applied to was the Alaska Public Defender Agency. I was fortunate to receive an interview and an offer. The Office of Career Strategy put me in touch with an alumna from Washington and Lee who had previously spent the summer in the Palmer office of the Alaska Public Defender Agency. She had only great things to say about her experience with the office.

I decided to accept a summer internship with the Palmer office of the Alaska Public Defender Agency because I wanted to get as much hands on legal experience as possible. I do not know for sure yet where I want to practice, so I wanted to summer somewhere where I could get experience that would transfer anywhere. Alaska allows legal interns to appear and participate before any District Court without a supervising attorney. Legal interns may also appear and participate in Superior Court with a supervising attorney. This is a much more liberal student practice rule than many other jurisdictions.

As an intern in the Palmer, I was given my own small misdemeanor caseload. I was responsible for cases from start to finish. First, I would have an initial interview with the client, hearing from them what had happened and what their priorities were. If a client was still in custody, I would file for a bail hearing. I appeared as their attorney at the bail hearings and would argue to the magistrate or judge why and under what circumstances it was appropriate for the client to be let out on bail. I would also attend all status hearings for the client. I negotiated plea agreements for my clients with the District Attorney’s office. If a client decided to take a plea agreement, I argued to the judge why the plea offer was an appropriate resolution for the case. If a client did not want a trial and a plea agreement could not be made with the District Attorney, I argued sentencing before the judge. I was also able to be first chair a trial, conducting the voir dire, opening statement, direct and cross examinations, and closing myself.

I’ll never forget the first time I was in court alone with no supervising attorney. It was a change of plea hearing. Everything had been agreed upon beforehand, all I had to do was read the agreement into the record. The worst thing that could have happened was the judge not accepting the agreement or the client changing her mind, but even knowing that, I was so nervous. That was the first time I felt the weight of being an attorney. I knew that even in this low risk situation, my words mattered and were affecting the life of my client. I felt the weight of being an attorney even more when I was first chairing my first jury trial. During that trial, being a student could no longer be an excuse for making mistakes. I needed to zealously advocate for my client and hold myself to a higher standard.

This summer I was able to put what I’ve learned at W&L into practice. Cases like Terry v. Ohio and Crawford v. Washington were no longer just things I studied to pass Criminal Procedure but cases that were binding precedent I could use to persuade the judge in my motions to find for my side. Nothing compares to the thrill of winning my first motion, knowing that I had put the concepts, legal writing, and legal research skills I learned at W&L successfully into real life practice.

The best part of my summer was that I was able to gain all of this amazing experience with the beautiful backdrop of Alaska. I was able to spend my weekdays helping clients and my weekends kayaking on glacier lakes with icebergs, whale watching, and exploring abandoned copper mines in the middle of the United State’s biggest national park. I could not have wished for a better summer experience.