Off the Beaten Path: My 2L Summer with the Alaska Department of Law, Criminal Division
Kelly Parker ’13
Now let’s get the record straight from the get-go: I’m not a city person. I like trees and rain and open spaces. I almost didn’t apply to NYU Law because it was, well, in New York City. (I know that I’ve alienated the vast majority of my audience here, but give me a second….) Obviously, I recognized my mistake. NYU Law is the premier public interest law school, and I planned from the beginning to go into public interest work. Attending really was a no-brainer. Regardless, I expected to hate it in the city. I don’t. I’ve adjusted to life here, and I’ve learned to enjoy NYC’s foibles and recognize why so many people are fiercely proud of it.
That said, I really didn’t know what I was getting into when I applied to work in Alaska. Sure, I’d been visiting my family in Southeast Alaska (waaaay at the bottom of Alaska) since I was seven years old, but that was in Thorne Bay, a town of just a few hundred people on sparsely populated, densely forested Prince of Wales Island. I knew the Alaska Department of Law wouldn’t have a substantial presence there—I’d be surprised if there was a practicing attorney on the entire island—and I knew I needed at least a moderate collection of attorneys to watch and learn from, so I decided to check out some of Alaska’s more densely populated city centers…and ended up in Anchorage, much farther north than I’d planned. (And, yes, the midnight sun does keep you up at night. My husband and I managed by cutting cardboard boxes to fit into our windows…seriously.)
Of course, although Anchorage is Alaska’s largest city, its population of 300,000 is dwarfed by New York City’s 8.5 million residents. Even so, the Anchorage District Attorney’s Office is larger than I initially anticipated. The office is comprised of approximately 30 attorneys across five units: Misdemeanors, Property, Drugs, Violent Crimes, and Special Assaults. It’s the perfect number of people to have in an office: large enough so you can always see a trial in progress or ask questions of a knowledgeable veteran, but small enough so you don’t drown in a sea of names and faces.
Working under an Alaska legal intern permit (available after the completion of three semesters of law school), I was thrown head-first into the fray. I’d heard rumors that the practical experiences of interning with the Alaska Department of Law, Criminal Division, were unparalleled, but I was unprepared for the reality. Within a week and a half, I was handling hearings on my own and was in court representing the office five days a week, frequently at two hearings per day. During an exceptionally busy four weeks, I second-chaired three trials. I directed the victim, opened and closed, conducted voir dire, compiled jury instructions, argued my own objections, spoke with the jury afterward—you name it!
During my final two weeks in the office, I even fielded an entire misdemeanor attorney caseload! (Note: This is not the standard situation. I was simply in the right place at the right time. A misdemeanor attorney was promoted to a felony unit, and no one was in place yet to cover his caseload. I had already worked hard for the office across nine weeks and proved myself worthy of the task.) I screened cases, negotiated plea deals, called victims, and generally fielded the “other stuff” that interns never see.
Working at the Anchorage D.A.’s Office was truly an unparalleled experience, but not just in the give-the-intern-a-ton-of-responsibility way. Overall, the district court judges were patient and welcoming; the defense attorneys, though zealous (as they should be), were reasonable and friendly; and the staff and attorneys at the D.A.’s office treated the interns with respect and demonstrated a personalized interest in all of our lives. After arguing in jail court for a couple of hours, I generally ended up driving my opponent (the public defender intern) back downtown, chatting all the way. Attorneys would come plunk themselves down in my office to pick up conversations from the day before. Many from the office would go out for drinks at the local microbrewery on Fridays, and everyone was encouraged to go home after 5:00 p.m., regardless of the day of the week (as long as one wasn’t in trial). To be honest, though I loved the atmosphere, I rarely accomplished this level of mellow. (Workaholic habits die hard.)
Not to mention, I was in ALASKA! Anchorage is surrounded by an arc of snow-capped mountains on one side and a bay on the other. On a clear day, I could see Denali National Park and Preserve from my office window. Over the weekends, a fellow intern from Kentucky, my husband, and I would hit the road. We drove for hours down the Kenai Peninsula through lush Alaskan rainforest; hiked to a glacier; watched the bore tide rush its way up the Turnagain Arm; ate turkey legs and spinach bread at a local forest fair; and saw grizzly bears, Dall goats, eagles, and moose (so many moose!). We even met—and petted—Stubbs, the 15-year incumbent mayor of Talkeetna, a funky town at the base of Denali. (Yup, he’s of the feline variety.)
The people of Anchorage are a wonderful melting pot as well, comprised of Native Americans of multiple lineages, grizzled outdoorsy types, artsy liberals, criminals on the lam, oil workers, survivalists, military men and women—and everyone in between. Alaskan juries nullify more than most, and believe me, it keeps you on your toes!
The people, the sights, the animals, the law: Alaska is the Last Frontier in many unexpected ways. I hope to return, and I cannot recommend working with the Alaska Department of Law, Criminal Division, highly enough. Find your inner Alaskan!