Internship Diaries

How She Became a Law Clerk as an Undergrad

CW: Domestic Violence, Abuse

When you’re pre-law, how do you find a internship in a real firm? And once you’re there, how do you get over the imposter syndrome of being an undergraduate in a room filled with law students? UChicago student Stephanie Dorris shares how she got her job as a Law Clerk, and how she’s using it to decide between being a lawyer or a professor. She also gives her best advice for being confident in your role, and how she and her team deal with the heavy emotional burden of working with victims of domestic violence.

Name: Stephanie Dorris

Job Title: Law Clerk, Cook County State’s Attorney

Location: Chicago, IL

College: University of Chicago

Year: Rising Fourth Year

Major: History and Political Science

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What are you doing this summer?

I’m a Law Clerk in the Domestic Violence Division of the Cook County State’s Attorney, which prosecutes criminal cases that occur between people who have a “domestic relationship”. It’s pretty broad, so the office sees a lot of different kinds of relationships, such as siblings, roommates, parents, or children. This division also handles many different crimes, like the kind of abuse that people usually hear about to other kinds, such as damage to property, stalking, or text harassment.

What do you want to be when you grow up?

When I grow up, I want to be a lawyer or a professor. I’m testing out the waters of what practicing law might be like in this internship, and when I start really writing my history BA in the fall I’ll get a feel for what academia might really be like. I’m excited to make an informed decision!

How did you get your internship?

My internship was actually posted on UChicago’s job search board, Handshake, as it was an internship funded through our University’s Metcalf program. I was just searching for anything law-related and I applied.

What do you wish you had known during your internship search?

What I wish I had known was how comfortable I would be in a position that I really didn’t think I was qualified for. With the legal field, it sort of seems like you aren’t “allowed” to take a job in any real firm until you’re in law school, because almost every application wants law students. Almost all of my fellow clerks seemed like they were law students, and I won’t lie, I was intimidated. But I ended up doing essentially the exact same job as them, and I feel really immersed and like I had an amazing experience before I even got to law school. Apply for that clerkship!

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Can't believe I love red this much

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What does a day in the life look like?

My mornings start by sleeping in. I’m a night owl, so I oversleep every morning and usually have to run out the door to catch the bus with only about five minutes to get dressed. I have to wear a court-ready suit every day, but I keep my suit jacket and heels in my desk – I have to do is slip on my blouse and pants and I’m ready to go! I don’t really wake up until halfway through my commute, so I mostly spend my (several!) bus and train rides listening to music and chilling before a busy day.

Once I get to work, the attorneys and I head straight to the courtroom. Since criminal court goes so fast, the judge waits about thirty minutes to start so that our attorneys can talk to as many victims as possible. Very often, I get to go in with them so that I can learn.

I can’t talk too much about details, but generally speaking it can be pretty emotionally difficult to hear victims’ stories. I’ve had to talk to quite a few children and teenagers, and hearing them describe abuse that shouldn’t happen to anyone, let alone children, is hard-hitting. Surprisingly though, the hardest thing to handle is when someone won’t cooperate, or when they try to hide the abuse. Depending on the case, the attorneys often can’t do anything because we just don’t have the evidence without a victim’s testimony. When a case is terrible, but we prosecute it, I can take some comfort in the fact we’re doing everything we can. When we can’t do anything it’s much, much harder to rationalize.

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After we talk to the victims, court starts. The attorney begins the proceedings on the cases that we can prosecute, and I start to do basically anything he or she needs. The attorney can’t leave the courtroom since cases go rapidly and there are no breaks, so I run around to find files, make copies, call witnesses that we might need, and handle all sorts of crazy tasks that might pop up. Court can get really, really hectic, and I’m sometimes on my feet running around all morning. We also don’t stop working until court goes “down” for the day, which can be as early as 10:30 on a really quick day or as late as 1:30 pm if we have a ton of cases. I really enjoy the unpredictability, as well as the fast pace – it feels like we’re getting a lot done.

In the afternoon, I keep doing a variety of things based on what the attorneys need– including running to Starbucks! Aside from grabbing everyone’s caffeine fix, I spend the afternoon organizing all of the cases, looking for lost files, calling victims, documenting our evidence, sending copies of everything to the defense attorneys, and doing anything else needed to prepare for the next day in court.

Even though it’s still a lot of work, the afternoons are more relaxed – I can change into comfy shoes, listen to music, and chat with the attorneys, who are all amazing. Our work can be upsetting, but the attorneys always manage to make the afternoons feel light with their attitudes.

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Stephanie’s desk.

At the end of the day, I’m usually exhausted. I get home after a long commute, cook or order out, and sometimes just collapse on the sofa. No matter how tired I am, though, I usually stay up a little too late – and then I snooze through a few more alarms the next morning when I run off to court again.  

How has this job changed what you see yourself doing in the future?

I can definitely see myself doing some criminal work right after law school, but mostly this internship has refocused my future on making sure that whatever I do will have some kind of good outcome for individuals. I realized that making a person’s day better is important to me, whether that’s by making their experience criminal case a little more comfortable by grabbing them some tissues, or hypothetically if I become a professor by offering advice or assistance to students.

You can follow Stephanie on Instagram! She’s also a super talented artist (who made the logo for Get This Girl a Job!) and you can check out her art here!

Hello! My name is Rosana Rabines! I'm a student, stationery enthusiast, and runner constantly reorganizing my life to make the most of my college experience in Chicago.

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