Judicial Internship in a Frozen Tundra

A grand adventure is about to begin

I left Australia after having been offered a position as a Judicial Intern with Judge Mark Gundrum, the Wisconsin Court of Appeals Judge and Ex-Wisconsin Lawmaker, who worked on the infamous Steven Avery murder case. I understand a lot of people, including myself, caught themselves binge watching the Making a Murder true crime series in the recent past.

Without giving it a second thought, I set off on an adventure…

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Haneda Airport, Tokyo, from the Sky Lounge

On transit at Tokyo, I walked into Haneda airport feeling soulless. At 4 a.m. the transit hotel was booked out and I was sent into the digital jungle to fend for myself.  At 7 a.m. my destitute carcass stumbled into the Sky Lounge in search of life. It’s amazing what a shower and a coffee can do for morale.

Twenty-eight to Zero

When I left Australia the temperature was hovering around twenty-eight degrees Celsius. When I arrived in the USA, twenty-seven hours later, it was zero degrees Celsius.

I initially believed that the Wisconsin weather would negatively impact my wellbeing, but it has not been an issue at this stage. I say ‘at this stage’ because it’s likely to start snowing soon and as an Australian I’m not acclimatised to the cold weather.

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It went from zero to snow quickly. I watched the phases of Wisconsin’s winter, in awe,  from the back window.

Court and Self Doubt

Week One at Court

The key events in the first week of internship included pre-starting jitters, trying to remember all the new names and faces, and being thrown in the deep end. On my first day, I had a quick orientation with the district attorney (Clare). As Clare was showing me around the office and introducing me to each judge and assistant, I had two thoughts: “How am I going to remember all of these names” and “sometimes it sounds like she’s speaking another language”. I was unfamiliar with some of the legal terminologies, but Clare was nice enough to give me a run down on the court structure and some unfamiliar terms.

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Day one at the Wisconsin Court of Appeals was challenging, to say the least, and by the end of it I was “bushed” (my new favourite term for tired, as the Wisconsinites love to use it).

Accordingly, I presumed that the judge would ease me into the internship in the same way Clare eased me into the workplace with her friendly introduction. I did not consider that the workload and content would be too overwhelming in the beginning (especially on the first day). However, Judge Gundrum loaded me with tasks from day one. At that point, I was cool as a cucumber on the outside, but on the inside I was flailing about like a fish in a net. I was concerned about my capacity to handle the workload. I could also hear other in-house judges yelling out, “if she’s free, I have some work for her to do”. I hit the internal panic button and took a trip to the bathroom. I stared into the mirror for a short while, collected myself, and went back into the office. One of my biggest challenges this week was trying to grapple with my self-confidence. I have always struggled with this and have consistently worked hard to prevent my lack of confidence standing in the way of success. I achieve this by reminding myself, in these moments, of the power and influence of positive thinking. It has been helpful that Judge Gundrum provided immediate positive feedback regarding my work.

Going into the internship I considered that the differences in the legal jurisdictions would be the most difficult aspect of learning. As I mentioned earlier, the differences in the legal systems is apparent, but not too cumbersome to navigate. I am learning the US laws quite rapidly and I am able to transfer my Australian university knowledge without difficulty. Judge Gundrum provided legal research tasks early in the week and I was able to use my Australian university knowledge to navigate LexisNexis and Westlaw USA to fulfil the research tasks. I was concerned that my university research skills were rusty and I wondered whether I had learned all that was necessary in order to research at this level. In these moments, I often try to remind myself that “…worrying means you suffer twice”.[1]

Upon reflection, and at this stage, I would consider the length of days and work tasks to be more tiresome than navigating a foreign legal system. Being seated for long periods of time and looking at a computer screen is tiresome and I quickly realised the importance of taking short breaks and packing lunch. On the first day, my anxiousness prevented me from asking the menial question of, “when may I take a lunch break?”. I didn’t want to disturb anyone, because the staff were busy with their own work, so I didn’t ask to take a lunch break. I was sitting at the computer for seven sorry hours without a break and by the time I arrived home I was completely “bushed”.  I questioned how I was expected to complete four weeks of the same gruelling legal tasks.

The second day was much easier than the first. I managed to overcome my main issues with a few simple questions. I brought lunch with me, I asked about lunch hours from the get go, I had more time to build relationships with the office staff, and gained an understanding of how they operate on a day-to-day basis. I was able to have some less formal conversations with the district attorney and Judge Gundrum’s legal assistant, which made the workplace seem much more light-hearted. When it came to ‘casual Friday’, I got to wear jeans, I was less stressed, and I started to enjoy the legal tasks. I’m beginning to feel my professional identity develop, along with my knowledge and understanding of the legal profession from a foreign jurisdiction.

Week Two at Court

Week two of the internship has come to an end and I am slightly more settled in the role of being a judicial intern, but I am constantly anxious about working at the appellate level. I have become a lunch time regular at the diner next door where I order breakfast for lunch everyday.  The weather has taken a turn and snow has started to blanket the land. I am challenged by my professional identity, especially in terms of self-perception versus the perception of work colleagues.

The workload in the office is not too heavy, but it is stressful. The tasks require intense analysis and I usually feel lobotomised by 5 p.m. Judge Gundrum is incredibly busy and unfortunately I don’t see too much of him. We meet in the mornings and afternoons to run through the days work. In fact, he is so busy that when I visited his office I was afraid I would never find my way out through the sea of paperwork. On Monday, I was given a brief and asked to produce a memorandum on a point of law. The issue involved US municipal law, which is referred to as an ordinance. I worked on the memorandum over a couple of days and on the third day, after becoming goggle eyed from staring at the computer screen, Judge Gundrum walked into my office and suggested that I begin collaborating on judgments (insert dramatic Alfred Hitchcock scream). Since I have not worked under these conditions before, as a judicial intern, I am not entirely familiar with the tasks and expectations. Prior to this internship, I had some experience working at a community legal centre in Australia, but that was entirely different to working at the court of appeals. The legal centre was focused around telephone interviews with clients, and it mostly involved superficial analysis of legal issues, whereas the judicial internship involves in-depth legal analysis. I thought I knew what tired was after working at the legal centre, but there is nothing to match the tiredness of working at the court of appeals.

In the second week, my face broke out into a blistering red rash, this could have been due to stress. After a week of non-remission I thought that the rash was taking permanent residency on my face, but I managed to get it under control with an expensive visit to the doctor. Which brings me to the point of the woeful state of the public health care system in the United States. I paid one hundred US dollars for an antibiotic prescription and then paid one hundred and sixty US dollars for twenty-four pills. I knew the health care system in the States was bad, but I did not realise it was this bad. This is unheard of in Australia!

It has started to snow and contrary to my initial belief, the cold weather is having no negative impact on my wellbeing. In fact, it is peaceful to watch snow fluttering in the wind from the warmth of the office. The only exposure to the weather is my treacherous one hundred-metre walk for lunch at the diner next door. Australia doesn’t have any diner similar to American diners, which renders it a novelty. The plain and greasy oversized portions are always welcomed after a tough day of brain gymnastics.

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Winter in Wisconsin is brutal and magical. A snow flake that landed on my car.

I am constantly second guessing the quality of my work due to my lack of experience in the role. I am also noticing additional differences between legal systems in the United States and Australia, notably elements of statutory interpretation and certain terminology. I am managing work related stress by focusing on my state of awareness and stress levels, and then by refocusing on my work step-by-step. I am also constantly challenged by my professional identity, especially in terms of my self-perception versus the perception of work colleagues. I find it almost impossible to understand someone else’s perception of my professional identity. I communicate my professional identity to others through my conduct, which I maintain at a professional standard. I am punctual, maintain a tidy appearance, keep colleagues informed of my schedule, meet deadlines, and keep up to date on work tasks. The way that I dress forms a part of my professional identity and I deem it important to maintain a professional level of dress.

The perception of my professional identity is posing challenges, because I am concerned about how others perceive me as a professional. I do not want to be perceived as unprofessional and I certainly don’t want to be perceived as boring or uptight. The fact that I have had minimal experience working in the legal profession creates internal challenges. I am managing these challenges by trying to stay true to my own personal identity and maintaining professional self-expectations. Until I gain more experience working in professional environments, and further develop my sense of professional identity, I am left to navigate the minefield alone.

Week Three at Court

The Christmas and New Year have been and gone like a flash of lightning in the clouds. I made sure to get an authentic Christmas tree in Wisconsin, because there are just so many tree farms. The Christmas week was wonderful, as usual, and my parents even visited from Australia.

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The Chosen One

As Christmas was nearing, the office was decorated with lights and cheer. I gave Judge Gundrum a Christmas basket to say thank you for having me intern with him. Soon after, it was New Year which always brings a feeling of solace for me, but this shortly ends after the year is in full swing. It’s time to keep excelling and what’s more exciting is that Judge Gundrum agreed that I can continue working with him in order to complete my Practical Legal Training in the USA.

Two weeks do not constitute enough time to determine any significant or exact developments in my professional attributes. The nature of the work has been so intense that I simply do not get the time to interact with other staff members. I have noticed that the thirty people working in the offices of the court of appeals are isolated in their roles. They are a quiet group of people who are extremely absorbed in their work. Although I have a great deal of independence at work, I do enjoy learning by observation and I haven’t participated in any court observation as of yet, but there is a hearing in March of 2018 that I will attend.

In terms of the workload and feedback, I have had a similar workload to the first couple of weeks. I asked Judge Gundrum for feedback on my performance and he responded with news that I am doing an “excellent job”, and he thanked me for all the help I had provided thus far. This news was a relief and nursed my insecurities about my capability of working in a foreign jurisdiction and at the appellate level.

The weather has warmed up again, and when I say warmed up, I mean it’s been ranging between zero and minus seven degrees celsius. That’s warm for this time of year in Wisconsin. I have not been negatively affected by the cold but I am starting to feel a little bit of cabin fever, which I haven’t been able to combat. I think I will need to ride an indoor bicycle or something of the like.  Sadly, I’m already looking forward to the sunshine in Australia, or anywhere. I went to north Wisconsin for Christmas and it was minus thirty-five degrees. It was so cold that when the wind hit my face, I felt breathless. That type of wind chill is suffocating and, if it weren’t for the warm clothing in this part of the world, completely unbearable. It became so cold at one stage that it froze the engine of my car, which then had to be defrosted with a hairdryer. This kind of lifestyle is for very special cold weather babies and probably not Australians. I also received news that it had been fourty-three degrees in Australia. So, I’m not really sure what is worse?

Week Four at Court

This is my final week of interning with Judge Gundrum at the Wisconsin Court of Appeals, USA. It feels as though a long time has passed since I landed in Chicago two months ago. In that time, I’ve learned things I can’t yet comprehend, I’ve battled with ailments, feelings of hopelessness, home-sickness, a Christmas and New Year flew by, I welcomed my parents to Wisconsin for a visit and waved them goodbye. This international experience has been the most rewarding of my university life. I feel as though I’ve developed personally and professionally, again, in ways I’ll be uncovering for a long while to come. I am experiencing more clarity about which path to take when I am admitted to the Supreme Court of New South Wales. My fiancé is from the USA and, for a while I contemplated staying here, although it would be challenging to transfer my degree I’ve decided that this will be my post-UTS direction. I have not yet decided whether I will continue my legal studies in the USA, work, or both. The Wisconsin cold has lulled itself for the time being and I’m enjoying the warmer weather of ten degrees Celsius as it reminds me of Australian winters. I won’t be saying goodbye to the court of appeals yet, as I will be continuing my practical legal training there, which is fortunate.

Although I haven’t yet participated in court observation, my work responsibilities have increased markedly. I was able to work with other judges and their clerks to establish an even deeper level of learning and interpersonal communication in this field of work. I moved from researching cases, to writing memos, and was later given the responsibility of collaborating on judgments. One judgment that particularly stands out was the three-judge felony involving the life sentence of a seventeen-year-old male. I found this challenging in many ways, not only was I challenged by learning the criminal laws of Wisconsin State, but I was challenged by my moral conscience, as this judgment would essentially decide the young mans right to a retrial and sentence with the omission of incriminating evidence. I experienced first hand the important work that occurs at the appellate level and the importance of accuracy in research and a conceptual understanding of the law. The final practical semester at UTS formed the foundational knowledge I required to understand and complete the work at the court of appeals, particularly the writing of memos in ‘litigation and estate practice’ and former subjects that formed the foundations of legal reasoning and understanding. I think I often underestimate the knowledge I’ve acquired through university, but I am beginning to understand that this knowledge is readily accessible and waiting to be put into practice.

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A magical perspective – the road to work. 

Prior to starting at the court of appeals I assumed it would be a high stress environment, but my beliefs were challenged when I arrived and discovered that it was in fact relaxed and informal. I’ve learned that my perceptions are skewed by what I know of Australian courts, television, word of mouth, and anxiety! It reminds me to always rely on experience rather than assumptions when forming my opinions. Initially, I questioned my ability to fulfil this role at the court of appeals, but experience has taught me that my will and determination to achieve will be an asset. I am grateful for the opportunity to work with Judge Gundrum in the USA. My future legal practice will be shaped by this experience and it allows me to venture into fields of work I never would have imagined. It gives me confidence to seek jobs I would not have sought before this internship. It has given me the desire to explore new areas of law I hadn’t considered. This life altering experience and the personal connections that I have developed will enhance my professional career, self-perception, and job seeking ability in the USA and Australia. The knowledge that I’ve gained being an intern at the court of appeals will be useful to me as a practitioner because challenging oneself is essential for developing a personal-professional self. It has inexplicably enhanced my self-perceptions and resilience, and specifically how to manage time and stress adequately while under pressure and in my field of work. I always strive to be a better person and employee, and the more I reflect the more I learn about my position in my residing environment. The skills I have developed, such as practical, analytical, interpersonal, reflective, stress-management and resilience, self-perception and self-appreciation, are essential life skills and will guide me throughout my future practice.

Joy and Relief

The internship was done and all was right in my world. Judge Gundrum’s appraisal was fantastic and I received news that I could continue working with him, but I just couldn’t shake that winter cabin fever.

After all the complaining about the cold weather, I managed to conjure a great plan to visit the sunshine. Hawaii, Hawaii, Hawaii, I was going to Hawaii. After ten hours of air travel and some wicked turbulence I was in Hawaii!

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Hanauma Bay, Oahu, Hawaii
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Snorkeling at Hanauma Bay, Oahu, Hawaii

The warm weather gave me a new-found appreciation for the cold and on return I immersed myself in the snow. It begs the question of whether we’re ever really satisfied and I respond to that question with: more than we probably care to realise.

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The aftermath of Storm Mateo that swept across Midwest, USA.

[1] Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, (Directed by David Yates, David Heyman, 2016) 2:13:00.

Live Long and Prosper

 

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