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“Since I was young, I had always known that I wanted to make a difference in my community. After witnessing several instances of injustice, I imagined a world in which I could use my voice to fight for others.”

Photo collage by Tomi Akinyele, VOX Teen Staff

Learning the Law: My Summer of Wisdom, Growth, and Appreciation

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The summer of 2022 was the best summer I have ever had! Honestly, I did not expect it to be, but it turned out to be a life-changing experience. For six weeks, I interned with Judge Whitaker of The Superior Court of Fulton County. As an intern, I learned valuable lessons that I will forever carry with me. The summer of 2022 was truly a summer I will never forget.

Since I was young, I had always known that I wanted to make a difference in my community. After witnessing several instances of injustice, I imagined a world in which I could use my voice to fight for others. My desire for justice led me to find interest within the law as it holds the power to make positive differences in people’s lives. This very desire led me to discover my aspiration to become a lawyer. From that discovery, I searched tirelessly for programs that could help my aspiration come to life. That’s when I found the Atlanta Bar Association Summer Law Internship Program (SLIP). This program was founded in 1993, and it provides high school students in the metro Atlanta area with the opportunity to further their understanding of the law. With this program, students gain valuable work experience. They also receive the opportunity to build mentor relationships with members of the legal community in Atlanta. After learning all of this, I knew immediately that I had to apply.  Amidst my excitement, I was soon disappointed because the program was only for high school juniors and seniors, and, at the time, I was only a freshman. Even though I was disappointed, I decided to bookmark the SLIP website on my laptop, and I eventually circled back to it. Remembering the internship and taking the opportunity it presented allowed me to experience a spectacular summer, filled with wisdom, growth, and appreciation.

The Interview & Selection

Following the submission of my application, I was required to attend an in-person interview on April 14, 2022, at Nelson Mullins Riley & Scarborough in Atlanta. As I walked into the law firm, I was immediately intimidated by the 75-plus other high school applicants assembled in the spacious room. Everyone was professionally dressed, and many students were greeting the legal professionals who would be interviewing us. Even though doubt crept in, I was amazed at the amount of diversity found throughout the room. Not only was there representation from every race among the applicants, but there was also a diverse group of legal professionals. My heart warmed at the sight, as it was something I had never seen before. It honestly inspired me, and it allowed me to envision my future self. While these thoughts consumed me, my name was suddenly called for the interview. 

My interview was over before I knew it. I was asked several questions regarding topics like my resume and where my interest for the law originated. I answered all the questions as confidently as I could. Prior to the interview, I had practiced what my responses would be like, which proved to be very helpful during my interview. 

On May 5, 2022, the Intern selections for the 2022 Internship program were released. With a heart full of hope and fear, I opened the email that held my fate. I closed my eyes and I prayed for the best. As I opened it, I jumped for joy because I was selected as an Intern! 

The Orientations

My internship officially began with an Orientation on June 1, 2022, at Nelson Mullins Riley & Scarborough in Atlanta. During the orientation, I met some of the legal professionals who run the program including Wade Malone, Natasha Silas, Sarah Arnold, Darrius Woods and Kellyann Malone. I also met many of my fellow Interns. 

With my fellow interns

Throughout the orientation, we were all required to stand up in front of everyone and introduce ourselves. Additionally, we had to recite The Preamble of the United States Constitution and an excerpt from the closing argument in the movie “The Verdict.” It was definitely a nerve-wracking experience, as I absolutely despise public speaking. Even so, I am beyond grateful for this very moment because it was part of my first steps into the professional realm.

After the first orientation, there were three others that spanned across two weeks. Within them, I learned about subjects such as confidentiality, professionalism, punctuality, and attention to detail. At the end of the last orientation, the interns received the details on where our internship would take place. Each of us had internships at different legal entities. While some had internships at government offices, others had internships at private law firms. My internship would take place at the Superior Court of Fulton County with Judge Paige Reese Whitaker.

With Judge Whitaker

Interning at the Superior Court of Fulton County

Monday, June 13, 2022 marked the first day of my internship with Judge Whitaker. As an intern, I was required to work a 40-hour week. By 8:30 that morning, I walked up the courthouse steps, passed through security, and entered Judge Whitaker’s chambers. As I entered her office, I was met with warm greetings from Judge Whitaker and her staff. Within Judge Whitaker’s staff is her judicial assistant, Gwendolyn Green, her staff attorney, Lara Percifield, her litigation manager, Sheila Rossier, and her court reporter, Evelyn Parker. 

 I introduced myself to everyone and then Judge Whitaker’s Judicial Assistant, Gwendolyn Green, showed me to my desk. I then took the opportunity to speak with Judge Whitaker’s Staff Attorney, Lara Percifield. Mrs. Percifield told me all about herself, from the schools she attended to her journey as a lawyer. Eventually, Mrs. Percifield took me over to another judge’s courtroom to watch a bench trial. This type of trial excludes the jury and it is conducted by the judge alone.

The Bench Trial

Throughout my first week at the Superior Court of Fulton County, I spent much of my time watching the civil bench trial involving a fraudulent marriage. Essentially, the marriage was considered a sham because one of the partners entered it in order to get around U.S immigration laws. Over the course of four days, I watched everything from the opening statements to the delivery of the verdict. Observing the entire case erased many of my prior misconceptions about trials. For one, I had previously thought that trials had limits on how long they could last. This bench trial showed me how prolonged trials can be in reality. Additionally, through the trial, I saw the application of different legal concepts I learned about in school. Both the prosecution and defense presented a wide variety of affidavits, depositions, and evidence, including documents such as bank statements. Furthermore, I was given the invaluable opportunity to speak with the judge, Judge Adele Grubbs. I also conversed with Judge Melynee Leftridge, college interns, law school interns, staff attorneys, judicial assistants, and court reporters. These legal professionals and interns graciously took the time to talk to me throughout the case. Many of them provided me with insight into legal concepts I did not understand, such as the statute of limitations. The case was definitely an emotional one, but through it, I saw justice being delivered for the first time. The plaintiff, after hearing the verdict, stood up to hug his lawyers and he expressed his gratitude with tears of joy. Seeing such raw emotion showed me the true impact of the law. Not only am I grateful for witnessing such an impactful case, but I am also grateful for the vital legal knowledge I gained and meaningful mentor relationships that I started to build.

The Kick-Off Breakfast

At the end of the first week, the Atlanta Bar Association Summer Law Internship Program had its annual Kick-Off Breakfast. An international law firm, Alston & Bird LLP, hosted the breakfast in their impressive offices. The 31 interns were recognized, along with our mentors/intern hosts. 

Introducing myself at the Kick-Off Breakfast

The featured speaker for the breakfast was Justice Verda Colvin, a Georgia Supreme Court Justice. Justice Colvin’s speech was full of wisdom as she encouraged us, the interns, to be courageous and to understand the necessity of uncomfortable situations. She elaborated on this by explaining how discomfort provides room for growth. Justice Colvin’s entire speech was so moving and her words inspired me to make the most of my internship by taking every opportunity to learn.

With Judge Whitaker’s litigation manager Sheila Rosser

The Jury Trial

During the second week of my internship, I observed a gripping criminal jury trial involving a vehicular homicide. In this case, I heard expert witnesses such as registered nurses, toxicologists, and medical examiners. I learned all about the First Offenders Act and what it entailed from the presiding judge, Judge Shukura Ingram. I also learned about the option of allowing the jury to ask questions. Judge Ingram allowed her jury to ask questions throughout the trial. This allowed the attorneys to understand what their jury was thinking. Sometimes, they would shift their focus in cross and direct examinations so that they could clear up anything the jury was unclear about. 

Not only did I learn from the judge, but I also learned from the officers within her courtroom. Through the officers, I became informed about the lengths of jury deliberations. While the entire case seemed straightforward to me, the jury thought differently. In the end, they were hung on five out of the eight charges against the defendant. 

Criminal Calendars

Over the course of my remaining four weeks as an intern, I watched many criminal and civil calendars. These calendars included case management hearings, plea and arraignment hearings, probation revocations, and final pleas. One case that stuck with me was one in which a defendant took a final plea deal. I got to hear the process for a final plea, and how defendants are read the terms of the plea deal by the prosecution. The calendars were fascinating because I honestly did not know they existed prior to my internship. 

After watching these calendars for a while, I started to help the litigation manager and staff attorney with their case lists. These lists encompassed over 200 open cases. While managing these case lists, I was able to learn how their e-filing system worked. Judge Whitaker and her staff all took the time to explain different concepts that occurred in the courtroom and in the case lists. Their willingness to answer my questions made me more enthusiastic and excited to ask them again in the future.

All Intern Meetings

In addition to the phenomenal opportunity to intern, Interns also attended weekly two-hour All Intern Meetings (AIMS). During such AIMS, we were given progress tests and we were required to submit weekly “Enrichments” (this is like homework in the school year). 

Intern Appreciation Breakfast

At the conclusion of the six-week internship program, there was an Intern Appreciation Breakfast at the State Bar of Georgia. Families, intern hosts, and former interns were invited, making it a full house. Terrence Lee Croft, a co-founder of the Atlanta Bar Association Summer Law Internship Program, gave a speech on what the internship program has meant to him. All of the interns then received their certification for completing the program.

My family and me with Wade Malone, an intern co-chair.

                                           

Seeking Opportunity

Ultimately, I became an intern because of my initiative to go back to the page I bookmarked during my freshman year. This very initiative caused me to become an advocate for high school internships. Teens should take the opportunity to seek out an internship around something they are passionate about. Doing so will allow them to dive into their passions and see if they would actually want to work in that specific field. There are endless internship opportunities all across the Atlanta area, in every field of work. A lot of them are not specifically made for high school students. Even so, teens should take the initiative to call different companies and offices. They should ask them about the opportunities they may have available. Expressing genuine interest is the true key to getting an internship. 

Internships are truly valuable and it is absolutely amazing that high school students, like myself, have the opportunity to access them. As an Intern, I grew both personally and in terms of legal knowledge. I learned the importance of making the most of every opportunity and the necessity of having the courage to be uncomfortable. I also met many amazing, influential people who have dedicated their lives to serving justice. I am beyond grateful to Judge Whitaker and her staff for allowing me to intern with them and for all they have taught me.

These pieces of wisdom I gained, along with the mentor relationships I built, make me forever appreciative of my summer 2022 experience.

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