Student Internship: Janae Staicer
This semester I am doing an internship at the American Civil Liberties Union. I chose this organization for several reasons. First, my class met an ACLU attorney in D.C., which is when I learned a lot about the mission of the organization and was very interested in what they do. Second, throughout the rest of that semester I discovered that civil rights and constitutional law are the fields that I am especially interested in. After a little research and learning that Pittsburgh had an office, it was only right to apply.
I am a legal intake intern at the ACLU for 10 to 12 hours a week. The office consists of an administrative assistant, two staff attorneys, one paralegal, a legal program coordinator, and legal intake interns. Since the office receives hundreds of messages and complaints every week, interns and volunteers handle a large amount of the work done at the office. Therefore, we always have work to do. There are about 10 interns and volunteers this semester, most of which are college students.
My duties as a legal intake intern vary from day to day. During my first two weeks, I read the intern manual to learn my tasks and the rules of intake. I also read several letters and message details with explanations of the proper response to learn how to respond on my own. This was complimented by an intake orientation in which Susan provided one-on-one and group training of the database, responding to letters, and entering messages into the database. We also met the rest of the staff at orientation.
My main task is the processing of intake messages and complaints. The Pittsburgh ACLU takes legal complaints from 24 counties in the western half of Pennsylvania and as previously mentioned, hundreds of complaints flow in every week. Complaints are submitted via mail, phone call, and occasionally e-mail. We do not take complaints via walk-ins as a safety measure. Another important aspect of intake to note is that we respond to every form of communication that comes through our office, which is what gives us so much work to do.
There are many steps to processing legal intake. The first thing I do on a typical day at the ACLU is listen to messages left on the voicemail, which is a complainants first form of contact with us. I listen to the details of the message, then enter all relevant information into the database. Based on the merits of the message, I then determine if it should be prioritized in the system. During the first few days as an intern I read tons of letters and message details to guide my judgement in this decision making process. If I believe the case is of special importance or priority, I write it down to then present to our staff attorneys, Vic and Sara, at our weekly intake meetings.
The next step of phone intake is returning the calls based on the messages entered in the database. This is my favorite part of my internship thus far. During a call back, I am responsible for taking down more information from the caller and converting their message to a complaint. Also during the call, I use critical thinking to make a decision of whether or not our attorneys will be interested in taking their case or if I refer them to another entity. We have files containing hundreds of referrals if the ACLU doesn't have particular interest. I then convert the message to a complaint and fill in a detailed form and what I told the complainant. Because the ACLU has very limited personnel resources, we are very selective in what cases we take. There has to be an extremely compelling civil liberty or constitutional violation that pertains to a large number of people that is present for us to not refer the complainant out. Our attorneys also prefer cases that would be challenging a government entity. An example is confronting the City of Pittsburgh Police Chief about their hiring practices blatantly ignoring minority applicants, which lead to a settlement to change hiring policies.
What I enjoy about these phone calls is that I have to act in an attorney manner, thinking quickly and efficiently to give the caller the answer and explanation for the ACLU. It's important for me to do well because I know the organization is respected by many people and the call is a representation of it. Sometimes it's very hard to tell people that we can't take their case, because there are a lot of cases that bring constitutional question. For example, there are cases where judicial misconduct seems obvious, but due to judicial immunity we cannot help the complainant. There are cases such as custody battles with very sad circumstances that have almost brought me to tears, but because it's not a constitutional issue we can't assist them.
Instead, I have to refer them to another organization and pray for the best. It's very hard sometimes.
Sometimes I come in contact with very nice people. Just the other day, I called a man regarding his complaint about his son's school district. While his issue was resolved before we got back to him, he genuinely thanked me for calling him back and asked me how to can send in a donation. It was refreshing to know that people appreciate what we do.
The other way complaints come through intake are via mail. The complainant can request an official form or write their own letter and enclose important documents. Susan, the intake supervisor, is the first one to read this mail. She then writes on it her suggestions of how we should respond, including which letter template to use and referrals to include. We then review everything that was sent in and if we agree with Susan's comments, we draft a response letter.
Every letter includes at least one referral. After we draft the letter, we enter all the information in the database as a complaint. Something I enjoy about this process is that if we don't agree with her suggestions we can talk to her about our opinions and ideas. Like in phone intake, we get a lot of downhearted as well as absurd complaints. County, state, and federal prisoners, who
contact our office often, use letters to do so. They write to us about prison conditions, due process violations, and many other issues. It's quite impressive how detailed and well prisoners draft their letters. They are usually the best ones we receive as far as order of information and detail of the issue. Another task of intake includes printing the final draft of the letter signed by Susan and preparing letters to be mailed, which I do roughly 20 percent of the time.
Every Wednesday, we have our weekly intake meeting with the staff attorneys. In these meetings we introduce potential cases we have come across during intake. We also have what I would describe as mini-lectures about how to precisely identify the cases the attorneys are looking for. Since they are very selective, it's difficult to come across such a case. These sessions are informative, as the attorneys break down clauses such as the Due Process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment--"meaningful notice" and "fair hearing" to then apply to the calls we make or letters we read. I find it beneficial to have training from the attorneys who are arguing and working on these cases. I enjoy the team culture feel at intakes meetings. We individually work on the steps of intake, so it's nice to all be at the office at one time and discussing the cases together.
We also have other opportunities outside of intake to take advantage of. The ACLU has access to a speaker's bureau. I am planning to request a speaker to discuss immigration with a youth group of first generation Americans. In a few weeks, I am being trained to become a legal observer at protests. The office has hosted community events this semester such as a Constitutional "Pub" Quiz Night on Constitution Day and a banned books reading.
The ACLU is filing its first lawsuit of the semester this week. I am excited to learn how the litigation process unfolds in this type of organization. It will be very interesting to be able to speak with the attorneys and learn about this process first hand. I also hope to be able to assist them if they need my help and attend their hearings in court.
I truly feel like I am learning a lot through my internship. Unlike some organizations that task interns with filing old papers and getting coffee, I know I am always going to be doing meaningful work. Even though I am often referring people to other organizations to look for help, it is rewarding to know that I have at least pointed them in the right direction. It's very enlightening to be able to determine which constitutional issue is prevalent in a particular conversation and make quick decisions giving advice and referrals to callers. Having an opportunity to practice applying laws to certain cases will be very beneficial to my career goals. It is important skill that is definitely being enhanced through my internship.
The staff are all very good at explaining what they want from us, which makes the work very easy and enjoyable. The intake room is a large room with several work stations. It creates an open but proactive work environment and we all work very well together. My fellow interns share many common interests and we have very good discussions about topics pertaining to the issues we address at work. This is all just a bonus to everything I am learning.
Overall, my experience at the ACLU has been outstanding and beyond expectations thus far. The work I do is teaching me constitutional questions and how to apply them, helping me enhance verbal communication and critical thinking skills, and allows me to help the ACLU fulfill their mission of hearing and responding to everyone that seeks their help. I am very satisfied with my decision to intern with the organization.