Those who practice the legal professions tend to have a less than popular reputation. They’re either advocating to imprison America’s citizens, defending the freedom of horrible criminals, or exploiting normal people just because they aren’t experts in the law. No matter what direction you approach it from, there’s a way to view the practice negatively. As a pre-law student, this seemingly unavoidable dilemma has been one of the main reasons for questioning the possibilities of my future. Could I make a fulfilling career out of my academic interests? Could I engage in the practice of law without becoming one of the bad guys? The answer to this question eluded me handily until interning with the Superior and District Courts of Klickitat and Skamania Counties.
My name is Wil Kotnik, a politics major in the class of 2020. The three courthouses that I work at are as intimate as one would expect of Washington’s less populated southern counties neighboring Oregon. People who come to the courthouse are often familiar in these communities, allowing for a unique sense of empathy from the lawyers and judges. My motives for exploring the possibility of interning here were to become more familiar with legal practice—to get acquainted with the vocabulary, the system’s structure, the strategies of practicing lawyers, and essentially decide if it was something I was truly passionate about. In merely three weeks of being an intern, I’ve accomplished aspects of those goals and learned much more. Some of my duties include researching cases by exploring the relevant charges and the outcomes of similar trials in the past; re-writing instructions for filing civil litigation documents such as divorce forms; and acting as bailiff during court, which allows me to observe hearings and trials. This allows me to see the lawyers and judges in action.
The person I work with the most closely is Judge Jeffrey Baker. Observing and discussing his jurisprudence is what gave me confidence that being a practitioner of the law didn’t automatically entail a calloused, unsympathetic approach. Judge Baker knows the consequences of his decisions, he knows the impact that they can have on the lives of these people. Oftentimes, the Judge accompanies his rulings with genuine and heartfelt advice, whether it’s directed to a recently divorced couple with kids, a substance abusing young adult, or a high schooler with a restraining order. The emotional response from the defendants are projected clear as day by not only their words but their body language. They express a palpable gratitude in having someone in the judicial seat that recognizes them as human rather than something to be whimsically locked away like discarded clothes.
I realized this as an opportunity to affect lives for the better. What could be someone’s worst day has the potential to be turned into an impactful moment going forward. This last week I watched the Judge connect with a familiar juvenile delinquent, someone who’d been transferred to an alternative high school, unsuccessfully been put through treatment programs, and more. The attorney’s first words on the record were, “We have excellent news, today.” The young man had recently gotten his life straightened out from what the Judge later described to me as a place they’d thought might be the point of no return. He now looked forward to going to school, enjoyed making music, and working in the woodshop. The attorneys and Judge Baker were genuinely proud—they knew that they had played a role in fixing this boy’s life. The Juvenile’s grandmother mentioned, “This is the first time I’ve been in this courtroom smiling instead of crying.”
And so, this small-town justice system showed me the good that can come from being a lawyer or a judge, the sense of fulfillment, the positive impact that you can have on another’s life. It helped me realize that there’s so much more to it than mechanically locking up innocent people or arguing on behalf of dangerous criminals.
Experiences like Wil’s are made possible by the Whitman Internship Grant, which provides funding for students to participate in unpaid internships at both for-profit and non-profit organizations. To learn how you could secure a Whitman Internship Grant or host a Whitman intern at your organization, click here or contact Assistant Director for Internship Programs Victoria Wolff