When the Pandemic Changed Students’ Summer Work Plans the Law School Stepped In

Signpost reading opportunity ahead
August 25, 2020

Back in March, when New York City started to shelter in place, St. John’s Law moved 140 classes taught by 39 full-time and 85 adjunct faculty members completely online in just three days. In just a few more days, all operations—career development, student services, alumni relations, and more—were fully remote.

With the transition, Cameron Michelsen '21 returned home to Minnesota, where he attended class virtually and continued his summer job search. As the weeks went on, the search became more and more frustrating. “I cast a wide net, but a lot of prospective employers cancelled their summer programs due to the public health crisis,” says Michelsen. So he was thrilled when Professor Christine Lazaro and Professor Jay Facciolo, who direct the Law School’s Securities Arbitration Clinic, offered him a summer position. “It was a great opportunity to continue my clinic work helping people in need,” Michelson says.

Michelsen was one of 51 participants in the Summer 2020 Student Employment Program, which St. John’s Law launched as the pandemic upended students’ summer work plans. “This was an extraordinary—and an extraordinarily difficult—time for our students,” says Jeanne Ardan, the Law School’s Associate Dean for Career Development and Externships and the program’s architect. “We knew we had to do something quickly to support them. It was an all-hands-on-deck effort, but the program came together beautifully. We placed 23 students in remote positions with our three in-house clinics. Another 21 students worked with individual faculty members as research assistants, and seven more were part of a research assistant pool that handled various projects for faculty and administrators.”

Students in the summer program didn’t just build valuable experience and skills from a distance, they were paid for their work thanks, in part, to donations made by alumni and friends to the Law School’s Student Opportunity Fund. “Our alumni are very generous, and when we asked them to help put our students to work this summer, they came through,” says Associate Dean for Law School Advancement Brian J. Woods. “They could see themselves in our students, who are hard-working and driven. So they knew the students would make the most of this unique program and their financial support.”

In his summer placement, Michelsen continued to work on Securities Arbitration Clinic cases assigned to him during the spring semester, involving mismanagement of investors’ accounts and brokers exploiting client trust, among other issues. He also helped to supervise and mentor students who were new to the clinic as they drafted and reviewed documents, spoke with clients and opposing counsel, and evaluated settlements. And he contributed to the Securities Arbitration Commentator arbitration alert and blog.

It was a rewarding experience that shifted Michelsen’s perspective on lawyering and client service. “Last summer I was a judicial intern,” he says. “While I enjoyed it, I didn’t get to see how my work benefitted the people who came to court for relief. There is nothing like working for clients who you want to help and seeing the real difference your guidance and assistance can make in their lives.”

Like Michelson, Brigitte Nunez ’22 found her clinic work this summer meaningful. “After my original summer internship was cancelled, my placement with the Law School’s Child Advocacy Clinic was like a light at the end of a tunnel,” she says. Along with her teammate, Jenny Brown ’22, Nunez worked closely with the mother of two young boys who they represented in Special Immigrant Juvenile Status and removal proceedings under the supervision of the clinic’s director, Professor Jennifer Baum. “The mom was so grateful that we were always available to answer her questions and provide information about how the case was progressing, but I was ten times more grateful to her for trusting us to help her sons,” Nunez shares.

For Brown, working in the Child Advocacy Clinic provided invaluable insight into the attorney-client relationship. “Much of our job was preparation and support, and we tried to always be available for our clients, to listen to and speak with them,” she explains. “We connected them with food resources in their area and listened to personal stories, not only with an ear for details that might help in court, but also with compassion. This summer taught me the importance of honesty when dealing with unknowns. Attorneys are supposed to have answers, but sometimes in the face of obstacles the best you can do for your clients is admit that you just don’t know.”

Gaining practical insight and experience was also a highlight for Michelle Mandler ’21 as she worked in the Law School’s Consumer Justice for the Elderly: Litigation Clinic this summer. She handled ongoing matters from the spring semester, including an arbitration mandated by a consumer contract, and took on new assignments. In one very contentious deed theft case, she assisted in drafting the settlement and negotiating provisions with opposing counsel.

Throughout, Mandler appreciated the guidance she received from the clinic’s director, Professor Ann L. Goldweber, and associate director, Professor Gina M. Calabrese. “When we went remote in the spring, Professors Goldweber and Calabrese had everything up and running without hesitation,” Mandler says. “This summer, they continued to find the best ways to communicate and work from a distance, which served as excellent examples of how lawyers can adhere to their duties of competence and diligence, even when faced with such an unprecedented situation. They were truly amazing role models.”

While some of his classmates worked in the clinics, Adam Ratner '19C, '22L spent the summer helping Professor Jeff Sovern research cases brought under state consumer protection statutes. “I really enjoyed the project,” Ratner shares about the assignment he took on with his research partner, Jessica Mohabir '19C, '22L. “For each state, we constructed a table to organize the data so Professor Sovern could easily source and use it. Analyzing the statutes, I applied a lot of concepts I learned about in Professor Sovern’s Civil Procedure class. For example, many of the cases were brought as class actions, while others were transferred to other jurisdictions or dismissed by summary judgment motions under the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure.” Ratner and Mohabir will continue to assist professor Sovern with his research this fall.

In addition to applying knowledge he gained as a 1L to his research project, Ratner developed practical skills through trainings and programs offered to Summer 2020 Student Employment Program participants and all St. John’s Law students. Designed by Dean Ardan and Courtney Selby, the Law School’s Associate Dean for Library Services and Associate Professor of Legal Research, these offerings included video conference etiquette, the role of big data in the practice of law, timekeeping and practice management tools, legal writing beyond the classroom, and networking in a remote environment.

“These were voluntary sessions, and we were impressed with the way the students embraced the opportunity and participated so enthusiastically,” Professor Selby says. “Our Law School librarians, including Chris Anderson and Saadia Iqbal, were indispensable as we crafted and presented this special curriculum. It was truly a collaborative effort.”

Professor of Legal Writing and Associate Dean for Experiential and Skills-Based Education Rachel H. Smith, who taught some of the training sessions, echoes the praise: “The work our law students do over the summer—whether it’s for a clinic supervisor, a professor, a law firm, or a judge—is a chance to see how to take everything they have learned in their writing and skills classes and apply it to the real world. I wanted the students to see directly that the skills they get to practice this summer are the skills that are going to set them apart at their first jobs. And any chance I get, I hope to encourage our students to believe in themselves . . . and proofread carefully.”

Looking back on all he accomplished during an unexpected, but rewarding, summer, Adam Ratner says: “When I first arrived at St. John’s Law, I couldn’t have imagined working remotely during a global pandemic for my first summer. But I’ve learned the importance of adapting to different situations in order to overcome obstacles. Being a problem solver and being resilient are qualities that will be useful to me and my fellow St. John’s Law students as future attorneys and in our everyday lives. The post COVID-19 world will be unpredictable and challenging. If this summer is any indication, I know we can rise to the challenge.”