Judicial Externship

Dear 1L’s, 2L’s and law school hopefuls,

I am currently a judicial intern through UBC’s Judicial Externship Program and I can definitively say, without hesitation, that this was the best way for me to end my last three years of law school. For those that know nothing about the program here is a bit of context. Every semester for the past nine years, eight third year law students from UBC are posted at Provincial Courthouses across B.C. I am at the Surrey Courthouse with another intern, there are three interns rotating through the Vancouver courts (Main, Robson, North Van and Richmond), one intern in Port Coquitlam, one in Victoria and one in Prince George. Monday through Thursday we work at our courthouse and on Fridays we have a three hour seminar at UBC to reflect on the experience. The program runs for the entire semester and we get 16 credits for the semester; the Externship is pass/fail but we receive a percentage grade for the seminar.

The work that we do at the courts mainly consists of observing court and doing research and writing memos for judges. However, that sentence does not begin to capture the invaluable lessons that we have all been learning from this experience. As an intern, I am no longer just an observer who snuck in the door and hesitantly grabbed a seat in the back corner, hoping not to interrupt anything and feeling out of place. As an intern, I have a “backstage” pass to the process. Literally, I have a security pass that allows me into chambers and my “office” is in the judge’s library. From there, I converse with the judges on the cases that they are hearing, they call us down to watch when something interesting is going on and they will often call us into chambers on breaks or stop by our “office” to discuss what was heard. I am on a first name basis with some of the clerks and sheriffs and they will stop and provide their perspectives and tidbits of information. Some of the sheriffs have been in the courthouse longer than the judges and have some great war stories to share.

To top it all off, all of we are being sent to a district court (in the North for most of us) and on a circuit with a judge. For example, on February 20th I will be heading to Haida Gwaii (formerly the Queen Charlotte Islands) for a week to observe court in Queen Charlotte City and Masset. On February 27th I will be heading to Prince Rupert for three days to have a one on one experience with the judges up there. This unique experience allows us to contrast the city court process to the ones in small towns and with predominantly First Nations communities. I cannot speak to this experience just yet, since I haven’t been on my circuit, but here’s a link to Marlisse Silver-Sweeney’s experience from last year, http://www.law.ubc.ca/news/2011/june/06_29_11_north.html. I have also posted a couple pictures from Rianna Molby’s experience in Bella Bella from a few weeks ago.

All in all, the actual experience of the Externship has been amazing so far. At the Surrey court all of the judges have been very welcoming and are happy to take us under their wing. This isn’t an experience where we are loaded with research work and are typing away in the court library until the wee hours of the night. Unless we have a busy week, most of us are at the courtsfrom 9-5pm and free on weekends. Oh yah, didn’t I mention that there are no readings, papers, or exams? Yup, you read me right, I have FREE TIME! It’s an amazing feeling that I haven’t quite gotten used to just yet. To clarify, there is some work involved, for the seminar we are required to post a weekly journal entry on Vista and then comment on each other’s journals. We are also required to do a half hour presentation at some point during the term, most likely on our circuit experience.

In contrast to the last couple years, the workload is significantly less, but I may dare to say that the learning experience has been significantly higher, at least in terms of practical learning. This experience has made the courts far less intimidating. I have learned what to do and what not to do from my own observations but also from the judges letting me know when a lawyer was effective or ineffective. I am enhancing my research experience by researching obscure issues that the judges rarely come across and sometimes from having to quickly find a case on point that they know is relevant but can’t quite remember the name. I am also learning the formalities of court, when the breaks are, when to bow, and who to make friends with. These are all things that I would learn at some point in my articling experience but now I already have and am hoping my first time in court will be a less terrifying experience. I know I will still mess up at some point but at least now I won’t mess up quite as badly, one would hope.

Ultimately, this is an experience that you can’t get again, unless you clerk, but even then, from what I hear, a clerking experience is more research and work focussed. The Externship program is very much focused on our education and ensuring that we spend time on not only research and writing but also watching court and learning from the judges and lawyers.

If this post has piqued your curiosity and you have anymore questions please feel free to send them my way, you can also email Sharon Sutherland, the program director, at sutherland@law.ubc.ca. The application deadline is February 15th, so get moving fast if you’re in second year!

Have fun reading this weekend, I think I’m going to go out now and enjoy the sunshine 🙂

~ Nikki

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