Government Shutdown Puts Law Student Externs on the Street
Randall Miller is a law student with time on his hands.
Since mid-September, the 3L at Washington and Lee University School of Law had been spending fours day per week in an externship with the U.S. Commodities Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) in Washington. Then came the government shutdown.
"I was finally becoming a little more fluent in the software and working on some high-profile cases, such as Libor," Miller said. "Until the shutdown, it was exactly what I had hoped for."
There is no official count of how many law students have found themselves in extern limbo—and potentially losing course credit—because the shutdown, but their number will certainly climb if federal courts exhaust their reserve funding as expected on October 15.
The shutdown has left students and law school administrators cobbling together alternatives that would allow students to gain the real-world legal experience they sought and enable them to receive credit. Externship coordinators at Washington-area law schools have been collaborating to find short-term projects at local nonprofit legal services providers that students can work on in the meantime.
Avis Sanders, director of the externship program at American University Washington College of Law, polled the school’s 140 externs. About 20—mostly assigned to federal agencies—can’t work right now. Another 16 at federal courts will be unable to complete their required hours if the shutdown continues.
The school developed an externship contingency plan two years ago when the threat of a government shutdown last loomed, and it has proven useful, she said.
"I wrote a memo to the students on Friday giving them ideas about other ways to find experiential learning opportunities," she said. "They can go to the Supreme Court. They can observe a trial, write about it and give a talk in class about what they saw. They can go to congressional committee hearings or observe the House or the Senate. Then there are the legal services providers."
Three of the 14 students in Washington and Lee’s pilot DC program—in which 3Ls spend a semester taking classes and externing in Washington—have been affected, externship program director Tammi Hellwig said.
"We’re evaluating it week by week," she said. "It’s a concern if this continues on for several more weeks, so we’re looking at a contingency plan. We need to make sure the students are getting the experience they want."
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."