My time as a legal intern in the Massachusetts State House

By Eva de Charleroy, New England Law | Boston Class of 2021

It’s a Monday in July, and Boston Immigration Court is gearing up for another week of proceedings.

Inside courtroom #9, the Honorable Jennifer Mulcahy is presiding. Officers bring each respondent before her to the chair in front, as they are called one by one. Many respondents come to the courtroom virtually, via a screen console. If they are lucky, immigrant respondents will have counsel physically present in the courtroom; however, many do not.

Meanwhile, to the left of the judge sits the lawyer representing the government—an ever-present figure throughout the day’s docket.

With the assistance of a translator, Judge Mulcahy explains to respondents that each one has a right to retain counsel “at no expense to the government.” The judge also explains that each respondent should have received a list of low-cost or free attorneys, and asks if they do, in fact, have that list. The answers vary as much as the home countries and case types seen throughout the day. But despite these differences, a commonality connects the cases: confusion ripe for a solution. 

This is the scene I surveyed as a legal intern in the Massachusetts State House, one of many eye-opening encounters with state government, immigration law, and more.

Months earlier, in the fall semester, I approached New England Law | Boston Professor Lawrence Friedman telling him about my interest in interning for a legislator. Scared of seeming too bold as a first-year student, I nevertheless asked if he knew anyone hiring for summer 2019. But fortune really does favor the bold, and Professor Friedman connected me with Rep. Joan Meschino of the 3rd Plymouth District, a spirited public servant with experience in nonprofit leadership and criminal defense litigation. After submitting my résumé, cover letter, and writing sample, I was invited for an interview —learning I got the job was an early Christmas gift.

When I first started interning at the State House in May of 2019, I knew I would be conducting research around providing legal aid for immigrants on a state level. Cities in different parts of the nation had conducted pilot programs or made provisions for legal defense funds, including Oakland, California; New York City; and local Somerville, Massachusetts.

After President Trump’s election in 2016, new administrative policies increased the number of immigration cases—and the simultaneous backlog—significantly. The immigration cases pending in Boston rose almost 80% after 2016; in places like Maryland and Texas, the number of cases doubled. This resulted in the overwhelming case load we’re currently seeing, with less timely judgments and longer waits for many respondents who have no immigration lawyers to guide them.

Research opened my eyes to the fact that representation for immigrants in court proceedings is scarce and unevenly distributed. Respondents in small cities were four times less likely to retain counsel than litigants in large cities. Overall, only 37% of immigrants in removal proceedings will be represented nationally.

The government’s representation being present for every case automatically creates unfair power distribution for the many respondents who have none and lowers efficiency for all involved. Additionally, this leads to less success in appeals for relief or bond, aging testimony, and increased detention and DCF costs for children who are left behind without support.

While immigration is largely under federal control, in Massachusetts the state legislature has liberty over the Commonwealth’s budget and spending powers. Further research showed that if we were to provide counsel for indigent litigants, we may save thousands of dollars being allocated to DCF, foster care, and detention costs state-wide, redistributing that money toward representation.

As a legal intern, I was given the task of detailing my research in a persuasive memorandum and beginning to draft language for a bill that may bring this debate to the floor, one of many exciting project I was able to work on.

My Work as a Legal Intern

While I worked on ongoing projects, I experienced excitement and collaboration, and I learned something new every day. I attended a Speaker Series, weekly hearings, and caucus briefings. Topics ranged from those I was passionate about to those I knew absolutely nothing about. One topic is knew nothing about was sustainability—but that certainly changed during my internship.

The district I work for is on Massachusetts’ South Shore, making it especially susceptible to the threats of climate change and beach erosion. This has led to Rep. Meschino’s extensive efforts to reach zero net emissions goals, support clean energy, and oppose a potential compressor station in a nearby town.

As an intern, I was able to submit a research memorandum and testimony surrounding a bill of interest to me. Rep. Meschino filed H.1511, An Act relative to privileged communications. This bill attempted to resolve the conflicting ethical duties of social workers and attorneys, when attorneys retained social workers for consult on cases. It did so by creating an exemption to mandatory reporting within the confidential realm of a proceeding. CPCS was a proponent of our work, while NASW remained an opponent, feeling that the legislature was overreaching. This bill introduced me to the sometimes-irreconcilable conflicts legislation can produce.

Inside the State House

Beyond seeing bills in their infancy, going through various stages of review, the State House offers exceptional networking opportunities. Rep. Meschino advised me early on that the State House is “an environment built on relationships.”

Working in a political sphere means coming across every issue and constituent you can imagine, so knowing how to make alliances and connections is crucial. Being a social person who worked on political campaigns in the past, my personality fit into this sphere. I value being able to meet new people and challenges, which is in asset in the greater legal community.

In many ways, the State House is a nontraditional workspace, where legal knowledge is invaluable. This job might deviate from traditional litigation or counsel, but there’s a reason many legislators have a law degree: legal knowledge is critical to those charged with molding policy.

Law students and attorneys understand how laws interact with each other, how they affect people, and how they affect the judicial system. The first legal internship is a chance to find out what areas you enjoy, and which you do not; both categories being equally important. The State House afforded me opportunities to problem-solve, interact with an array of people, and learn about numerous subject areas as I narrow my career focus. On top of it all, I got to serve the public, which has always been a core value to me and my family.

Thanks to New England Law | Boston and State House faculty, this summer internship will be an opportunity I will be forever grateful for.

(Pictured above: Eva de Charleroy and Rep. Joan Meschino of the 3rd Plymouth District) 

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