Learning the law in a new light

by Lori Ferguson,

Studying the law is one thing, but making it is something altogether different. Many Willamette University College of Law students discover this first-hand through externships with members of Oregon’s state Senate and House of Representatives. Willamette law school’s Externship Program, in high-demand today as employers seek law school graduates who have hands-on legal experience, offers experiential learning opportunities with practicing lawyers in business, private practice, public interest and, of course, government.

With its location just steps away from the capitol, the College of Law is ideally situated to provide students with hands-on experience in the legislative process. And while the lessons learned are as varied as the students themselves, participants agree that everyone walks away from the experience with a better understanding of the law and their role in it.

Willamette’s 3L Andrew Downs has completed several externships and feels each experience has refined his understanding of the law as well as his role in the process. “My first externship was in a city attorney’s office and although interesting, it was more traditional. In my second externship, I wanted to experience the other side of the law and work with policy.”

Downs began his legislative experience as a legal extern to Representative Mike McLane, briefing Republican members of the judiciary committee on every piece of legislation that came through. He thrived in the position and, at the end of the term, made an agreement with McLane’s chief of staff to continue the externship in a more substantive position as a policy analyst for several committees. “Learning about the legislative process has definitely enhanced my analytical skills and I’ve also discovered that I really enjoy policy work and would like to continue in this area after graduation.”

Christina Andreoni ’15, a legislative assistant to Representative Jennifer Williamson, has concluded that politics and the law go hand in hand. Many bills deal with legal topics, she notes, and having an understanding of the law and the use of language in trial and evidence is a great help, both in drafting bills and in understanding why they must be drafted in particular ways. “Every single word that goes into a bill matters,” she explains.

Although politics have long been an interest, Andreoni thought that her future was in a law firm. Now her focus has shifted. “Seeing how Representative Williamson has made such a difference in the lives of Oregonians has been very inspiring, and has motivated me to become involved in politics as well.”

As she nears the end of her second externship, Cassondra Passon JD ’15 is eager to take the bar exam and get back to the legislative process. An extern first for Senator Arnie Roblan and now for Representative Cliff Bentz, Passon has been exposed to every facet of the policy-making process. “Working in the legislature is fascinating—you get an understanding of how ideas become laws and the importance of language.”

Passon spent a portion of her externship with Legislative Counsel last spring researching how the Oregon Supreme Court would interpret three words. “When the legislature is considering something really important, they want to get it right,” notes Passon, “so they get very specific. I really like being part of that process.”

For Brianna Wellman JD’15, a stint as a legislative assistant to Representative John Davis has provided a crash course in legislative procedure that wasn’t available in school. During her externship, Wellman researched bills being considered by the transportation and revenue committees, drafted floor speeches for the representative, and testified in committee. “My externship revealed a host of job opportunities for JDs and even made me realize I might enjoy being a lobbyist—a real eye-opener!”

Rising 3L Kim Davis is nearing the end of her second externship and says she has found her experiences incredibly fulfilling. Currently an extern for the Deschutes County District Attorney, Davis began her externship experience as a legislative assistant for the Oregon Criminal Defense Lawyers Association (OCDLA), tracking proposed criminal law bills—some 750 in total this session—and keeping an especially close eye on the 45 or 50 that were deemed ‘Priority 1.’

“It was an incredible experience—I was exposed to many different areas of the law in a short time and I gained valuable knowledge on how to interpret the law. We all have a personal lens through which we view the world, and when you’re making policy, you have to anticipate different interpretations of the law. My externships have greatly enhanced my analytical skills, and having the opportunity to work on best practices for our state has been very rewarding.”