Two decades ago this summer, Siena sent its first cohort of rising seniors to three partner law schools so they could work under the direct supervision of a law professor while undertaking original legal research.
Aimed at giving students a first-hand taste of legal studies and the work of practicing attorneys, Summer Legal Fellows was originally launched with partnerships at Albany Law School, Pace University and Western New England University. Before long, it had expanded to include American University, Fordham University and Touro Law Center.
Nearly 200 Siena students have participated in the program over the past 20 years, all under the direction of its co-founder Len Cutler, Ph.D. professor of political science and pre-law advisor.
“The experience helps the students develop critical thinking, legal writing skills and analytical reasoning, all of which are crucial for pursuing a career in law or policy development,” said Cutler. “
Professors at the partnering law schools offer rave reviews for the legal fellows they mentor.
“The Siena students we’ve worked with have been, without exception, extraordinary,” said Andrew Ayers, director of the Government Law Center and assistant professor at Albany Law School. “The program gives them the chance to explore the law, to prepare for exceptional careers, and to develop their professional identities and skills. It’s an outstanding opportunity.”
An anniversary celebration of the program was held on the Siena campus in April, and as the summer gets underway a new class of legal fellows are digging into their research.
Marissa Hochberg ’20, a political science major from East Greenbush, N.Y. and Zach Coderre ’20, a political science/philosophy major from Worcester, Mass. are at Albany Law with Ayers, working on the Rural Law Initiative, a pilot program created to bring legal assistance to rural communities in New York.
“Our goal by the end of the summer is to present the most pertinent information we’ve researched to the New York State Bar Association,” said Hochberg. “This program serves as excellent framework prior to pursuing my legal education, and I’m extremely grateful to be a part of such a great team at Albany Law.”
“The program is giving me an inside look at what type of obstacles lawyers face,” said Coderre. “As an aspiring lawyer, this type of insight has been incredibly valuable. Perhaps most importantly, this project is helping me to better understand the intersection between law and public policy, two of my primary areas of professional interest.”
Cutler said about 85-90 percent of students who go through the program eventually earn a law degree, while others select different career paths such as social work or public administration.
Mara Afzali ’14 is now an associate at the Albany-based Bond, Schoeneck & King PLLC.
“Being a Summer Legal Fellow at Albany Law helped prepare me for law school and my legal career in many ways,” she said. “I got to work closely with law school professors and recent graduates and was introduced to legal research and writing skills early on, all of which made the transition to law school far easier than it would have been otherwise. I was given substantive assignments from multiple attorneys in the office over the course of the summer and learned to manage my assignments much in the same way I do now as an associate at a busy law firm.”
Gloria Bruzzano ’01 worked at Pace’s Environmental Litigation Clinic under the direction of Bobby Kennedy Jr., and Karl Coplan.
“My experience helped to direct me towards a career in civil rights litigation and solidified my desire to practice law,” she said. “As an undergraduate I was able to meet with clients, review evidence, draft memos, and learn how to conduct legal research. When I transitioned from college to law school I already knew what to expect.”
Todd Ommen, managing attorney of Pace’s clinic said Siena’s SLF program explained, “We don’t have them making copies or reading cases – I make sure the interns are actually involved in the case.”
He offered the example of current fellow Emily Biernacki ’20 who upon her arrival at the clinic drove to a nearby port, got on Riverkeeper’s boat, and investigated outfalls from industrial sites into the Hudson River as part of investigating potential Clean Water Act lawsuits.
“Her trip will lead to researching the potential case, and ultimately drafting a notice of intent to file a lawsuit or even the complaint itself,” he said.
Biernacki, a history/pre-law major from Voorheesville, N.Y., said, “This internship has helped solidify my decision to go to law school. Working on an actual case has allowed me to experience what it is like to be a lawyer, and I love it.”
The law professor who coordinates Summer Legal Fellows for Western New England’s School of Law calls the program “a very valuable and important part of a pre-law student's education.
“Our program educates students on the intricacies and latest developments in electronic legal research, a critical part of legal education and after-law school lawyering. Each of our SLF students works closely with a member of our faculty on important legal issues that relate to current legal problems, and we’re proud that their research has assisted the Massachusetts Legislature in addressing contemporary matters of public concern.”
Wolf said the Siena students who participate in the program and those who eventually matriculate at Western New England’s law school have been “top of the line.
“They’re intelligent, great researchers, fine law students, active in our law community, and overall excellent contributors to our legal culture,” he said. "The success of our SLF program is entirely attributable to the high quality of the Siena students and the creativity and enthusiasm of Dr. Cutler."