Government Shutdown Puts Law Student Externs on the Street
Instead of heading into work at the CFTC on Tuesday, Miller planned to attend oral arguments in the U.S. Supreme Court case McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission, which deals with limits on campaign contributions. "I’m trying to take advantage of other opportunities that I wouldn’t normally have," he said. "I’m going to court hearings. I’m meeting with attorneys."
Half of the 14 students from Washington University in St. Louis School of Law who are spending the fall semester in Washington externships have been affected, said Tomea Mersmann, associate dean for strategic initiatives. But administrators are trying to find creative ways to keep them busy with substantive legal work.
For example, three Washington University externs in the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the Federal Communications Commission are helping a health-related nonprofit organization finalize a manual for legal services providers on accessing Medicaid and health insurance for clients.
"We’re committed to making sure this doesn’t prevent them from graduating on time," Mersmann said. "It’s frustrating, and it’s requiring us to be creative. We’re able to work around a week pretty easily. A second week we can probably work out as well, but the longer this drags on, the more it impacts the value of the externship experience."
The shutdown is a bigger blow to law schools outside D.C. that send their students there for a semester, said Carmia Caesar, director of externships at Georgetown University Law Center. Most of Georgetown’s 156 externs spend a minimum of between 10 and 15 hours a week at their externships. Georgetown’s semester is three weeks longer than American Bar Association rules require, so students have a three-week buffer to meet their credit requirements. If the shutdown lasts longer than that, it could become a serious problem, Caesar said. Forty-four of the school’s externs are out of work due to the shutdown.
"From the students’ perspective, it’s incredibly unsettling," Caesar said. "A lot of students come to Georgetown from around the country because they want to work in the government, and we want to encourage that. The last thing we want to do is discourage talented young attorneys from working for the government. This shutdown is an unfortunate reality check."
Still, it hasn’t dampened Brian Gilmore’s enthusiasm. The Georgetown 3L began an externship this fall in the U.S. Department of Justice’s civil appellate division, in part to help decide whether to pursue a government career. Some externs in his division have been allowed to stay on, depending on their case schedules, but Gilmore hasn’t set foot in the office for a week.
"It’s really disappointing, especially coming from a summer when I was at a firm and enjoyed the professional environment," Gilmore said. "It’s not the end of the world, but this internship thus far has been one of my favorite experiences in law school."
The shutdown also presents potential problems for next semester’s crop of externs, Sanders said. Now is the time when many federal agencies accept extern applications, particularly at agencies like the Justice Department that require lengthy background checks. Wading though these applications probably isn’t an "essential" government function, she said. "This will be a huge problem for students applying for next semester."
For now, "I definitely wish I was at the agency and continuing to work on those cases," Miller said. "I’m eager for Congress to come to a resolution, for the president to sign off and to return to work as normal. I’m waiting for that email from the agency telling me when to report to work."