Court partners with IU to create pilot rural justice clerkship program
By David Sexton, Intern | Office of Communication, Education & Outreach
The Indiana Supreme Court and Indiana University’s law schools partnered in a pilot program to allow their students to work with courts in less urban communities. Ten law students-five each from IU Maurer and IU McKinney-completed judicial clerkships with judges in ten rural Indiana counties. Students applied for a spot in a highly competitive process, with the prospect of receiving course credit, special training, and a university-funded stipend. Those selected were paired with judges who had expressed interest in participating in the program.
Chief Justice Loretta Rush and Indiana Court of Appeals Judge Ted Najam-both of whom serve on the Maurer Board of Visitors-initially suggested the program to the school. They are both highly supportive of intern/externship programs and recognized that most of those opportunities are concentrated in federal district courts and state appellate courts.
Judge Najam hopes this program will spark law students’ interest in working in smaller communities upon graduation. “County-seat-practice work is every bit as important for the people in those communities as it is in larger cities,” said Judge Najam in pitching the program. He noted that much of Indiana justice is dispensed by Indiana trial courts sitting in smaller, rural counties, where many Indiana lawyers practice in solo and small firms.
After reading about the pilot launch at IU Maurer, Indiana Court of Appeals Judge Melissa May thought the program could be a perfect fit for IU McKinney Law School. She knows the amount of work done by rural attorneys and trial courts, as she discovered in her ongoing work supporting pro bono programs across the state. She noted, “People in rural communities are sometimes those who need assistance the most. When law schools pair students with rural trial courts it benefits everyone involved.”
Kaitlin Willbanks, a Monticello native and IU Maurer 2L, clerked this past summer for White County Circuit Court Judge Jason Thompson and Superior Court Judge Robert Mrzlack. She found it to be an enriching experience, saying, “I intentionally came home from law school to do work in my own back yard. For those of us who didn’t grow up in an urban area, there is a sense that smaller communities are left behind.” She worked to update local court rules and the courts’ website. Willbanks sees this program as a perfect fit for her and also helped envision her own successful law career right here in Indiana.
Another 2L at Maurer, Brian Hudson, helped run a special mock trial for children in a summer program in Salem, Indiana. “Brian developed a PowerPoint presentation making it interesting and relatable to the kids,” said Washington Superior Court Judge Frank Newkirk.
Krystal Hunter, an IU McKinney 2L and Richmond native, clerked with Wayne Superior Court 3 Judge Darrin Dolehanty. He wanted Hunter to receive a well-rounded experience and provided opportunities to interact with local attorneys and discuss hearings and cases together. Hunter said, “One of the highlights was seeing Judge Dolehanty working with juveniles…I have learned so much from him.”
As the program moves out of its pilot phase, law students and trial court judges across the state will be waiting to see if they can participate. Associate Dean Aviva Orenstein at IU Maurer, who played a leading role in the development and implementation of the pilot, says that initial responses to the program are positive. The overwhelming sentiment is that it’s a move in the right direction for students and courts.