2007 PFIG Recipient Marta Cook

Career Administrator

Marta Cook
College of Arts & Sciences
Political and Social Thought
2009 Graduation Year

Internship: Charlottesville Legal Aid Justice Center in Charlottesville, VA.

Early this spring I was researching all the different types of internship opportunities available for undergraduate students. The legal aid offices kept sticking out in my memory as a really worthwhile and interesting way to spend my summer. As a rising third-year, I am thinking about going to law school and I thought this might be a good way to decide if that was the right path for me. At first, the office was a little hesitant to take on an undergraduate intern--all their other interns are law students. Luckily, I had made a very good contact from an earlier internship who then put in a good word for me.

Through this internship, I hope to learn a lot about how to combine effectively a career in public service and law. I do not want to go to law school simply because it's the default option for a graduate with a liberal arts degree. Hopefully this internship will help me decide if going to law school is the best way to achieve my goals, and perhaps this internship will help me to clarify what my dreams and goals are, as well.

Notes on the first week

From the moment I entered the Legal Aid Justice Center on Preston Avenue, I had to hit the ground running. After a few minutes of chitchat, my supervisor casually asked, "So would you like to write the press release for our biggest event of the spring?" I told her I had never written one before, but why not?

As can be expected in the nonprofit, public service world, there is always something for a warm body to do. I expected to peruse online newspapers and take long lunch breaks like many students who begin internships, but every day I am busy doing something I believe to be truly helpful to the mission of the Legal Aid Justice Center. Not everything is as glamorous as writing press releases and doing research on high-profile donors in the area--I have also hand-addressed and stuffed quite a few envelopes. I have become well-acquainted with the fax machine and the clever machine that weighs mail and determines the postage cost in seconds.

The most valuable aspect of this internship, though, is surely the time I spend with the adults who work here. Many hail from quite prestigious law schools, and their decision to turn down lucrative corporate law careers is as mystifying as it is inspiring. They work tirelessly for clients who cannot pay them for their service. This may be one of the few law offices where most people walk around with genuine smiles on their faces.

This internship is already starting to have a profound impact on me. Thank you so much for the grant that allows me to work here all summer! I love coming to work everyday.

Midway

Few internships land students in jail. As an intern at the Legal Aid Justice Center, though, one learns to approach each day with a very open mind. A few days ago, one of the head attorneys specializing in Civil Advocacy said he was taking the law student interns on a field trip to the Charlottesville-Albermarle Regional County jail. Ever the eager intern, I decided to tag along, too. The jail was surprisingly progressive in some ways — the employees were very aware of mental health issues and deeply cared about rehabilitating prisoners through incentive-based programs. Of course, there were some prisoners who weren’t planning on leaving jail anytime soon. I became very nervous walking through some jail cell blocks, like the high-security areas holding murderers and rapists. It was interesting to learn about what the magistrate does, like interviewing every prisoner that walks through the door and discussing her or his legal situation. In the end, though, with my nerves rather frazzled, I knew any legal future I had would be one that involved as little time with violent criminals as possible.

Another day, the aforementioned lawyer invited me on a trip to visit one of his clients. We traveled all the way out to the mountains in Nelson County to interview this woman, the very emblem of rural poverty. She was fighting to keep her mobile home (worth a grand total of around $3,000), but greater complications arose when I learned that the owner of the property who wanted her to leave was her older sister. Earlier, the two sisters had gotten into an altercation involving a metal pipe, a rake, and biting. Details like that are surely a bit humorous, but when I stepped back and looked at the client’s life history and living situation, I knew it was far from funny.

In situations like the two described above, I sometimes feel I take away more from the internship than I contribute. I now have seen segments of society that have been forgotten, perhaps because knowledge of it is too painful to bear. I hope that when this internship is over, I continue to remember.

Final Reflections

As I packed up my laptop on my last day of work, after having been taken out for dessert and coffee by my supervisors, I realized I had completed the ideal internship—I found something I truly loved and could see myself doing as a career. Working at the Legal Aid Justice Center was not glamorous—the lawyers make nowhere near what they could in the corporate world, and they all share one secretary. But it seemed as if everyone found their job fulfilling, and to an extent, exciting.

On the other hand, legal aid lawyers have to confront every single day the injustices that plague poor people in the United States. Even in the beautiful, wealthy college town of Charlottesville, there is horrible housing discrimination, payday loan practices, and workplace racism. Some people that came to us had life experiences I cannot even really imagine. But as a legal aid lawyer, I know I will seldom feel helpless when I learn about injustices in my town. With the right legal training, I could do something about it. Perhaps I will not go immediately into legal aid after law school, but I definitely foresee myself taking on pro bono civil rights cases and working for legal aid later in my life.