Since starting our fellowships with the Hofstra Law Access to Justice Incubator in March, 2014, we have had the unique and invaluable opportunity to tour the various courts in Nassau County, including normally restricted, behind the scenes access. This experience has been beneficial in two ways. First, it has allowed us to become acquainted with the buildings in which we will be practicing, so as to avoid the “deer in the head lights” syndrome often faced by young attorneys. Second, it has introduced us to the many facets of the legal system and all of the different ways attorneys are using their law degrees in a professional capacity. The former is a critical part of our transition from the hallowed halls of academia to the trenches of practicing law. The latter however, is shaping how we envision our careers beyond the incubation process.
When those outside the legal field, and sometimes even law students, think about the practice of law they likely envision litigators and judges battling inside a courtroom, but this is only a snap shot. Over the last few weeks we have met with those individuals who breathe life into the legal system, who are critical to the stability of our society, yet who often remain anonymous or under appreciated. We met with Maureen O’Connell, the Nassau County Clerk, who was kind of enough to give us an inside look at the County Clerk’s Office. Described as the “nerve center” of the court system, the County Clerk’s Office is where court actions begin, records are maintained, and legal professionals and the public alike gain access to the records necessary to steer through the legal system.
In what ended up being a surprisingly enlightening experience, we observed the employees of Nassau County Traffic and Parking Violations Agency and learned about red light proceedings. This is probably the most common way the average citizen comes in contact with the court system. We met with the clerks who review the red light videos on daily bases and observed two red light hearings before a Judicial Hearing Officer, one of which was successfully challenged. We were assured that this successful challenge was a rarity. In addition, we were given a quick introduction to the way court reporters document proceedings and a demonstration of their mysterious coded language.
Of course we also experienced the “snap shot” of the legal system when we sat in on the opening statements in a contested divorce proceeding, the sentencing of a defendant who had previously pled guilty to a felony, and the arraignments of defendants. While every judge we met with has his or her own distinctive style for how his or her courtroom is run, we saw a common theme: Judges stepping away from their role as the impartial rulers to take the opportunity to impart wisdom and guidance on both attorneys and the members of the public who enter their courtrooms.
We have been consistently informed by all the people we have met that the incubator program is one that is becoming more and more important within the current legal profession. Lawyers and Judges alike, have told us that with the change in the economy and the resulting effect it has had on the legal profession, programs that actually make law school graduates “practice ready” are becoming more and more crucial, especially for new graduates employment opportunities. With a decline in big firm opportunities, the smaller firms need to hire people with the actual day-to-day skill set because they cannot afford to train new lawyers, as they have been able to do in the past. Hearing this repeated so many times by such an array of legal professionals not only shows the cultural change, but is also encouraging for us, as the first fellows in this program.
In the past few weeks there was no shortage of individuals using their legal education and license to help those most vulnerable. From judges attempting to guide the litigants to attorneys volunteering their time in the Sandy relief and mortgage foreclosure clinic hosted by the Nassau County Bar Association, and from court evaluators doing investigations into guardianship proceedings, to the court clerks and law secretaries working behind the scenes to ensure that the courts run smoothly, everyone plays a vital role in the thriving legal system within Nassau County.
Erin Ross, J.D. & Siobhan Klassen, J.D.