Gabriela McCormack is a third-year law student at St. Thomas. This summer, she worked as a law clerk for the Office of the Federal Defender for the District of Minnesota. Her clerkship was part of the Minnesota Justice Foundation (MJF) Public Interest Law Fellowship program. The fellowships are funded by the St. Thomas Law 3L Class Gift, St. Thomas MJF Public Interest Fellowship Annual Giving and the monies raised by the St. Thomas MJF Student Chapter.
I spent my summer clerking with the Office of the Federal Defender for the District of Minnesota in Minneapolis. As a result, I was able to significantly continue my commitment to public interest work while strengthening my legal research and writing skills at the same time. The federal defender’s office plays an integral role in federal criminal practice, as it serves as counsel for the majority of defendants who are unable to provide financially for their own defense and is critical to the administration of justice for the people of Minnesota.
I was able to work on matters at various stages of federal criminal cases, from initial charging through trial or plea, as well as sentencing proceedings and on appeal. In fact, my first assignment was drafting an 8th Circuit appellate brief on sentencing guidelines. It was an opportunity to dive deep into the weeds of an argument and legal research.
I also had the opportunity to learn how to advocate for clients who are already incarcerated by working on a compassionate release motion, which if granted, authorizes a court to reduce a defendant’s term of imprisonment for “extraordinary and compelling reasons.” Those compelling reasons include early release for the elderly, those facing imminent death, and those in prison with debilitating medical conditions or serious sicknesses. Since the COVID-19 pandemic, this practice has become more prevalent, and Minneapolis has had more success with it than other offices nationwide.
In the latter part of my summer, I focused less on legal and expository writing and more on working with clients. In addition to attending pre-sentence investigation interviews, I worked on sentencing position papers. The sentencing position papers are emotional and persuasive in nature. It is an opportunity to tell the judge a client's story beyond the crime itself. It allows the judge to see the full picture of the person in front of them and allows them to consider all mitigating factors.
Beyond writing and working with clients, I had numerous courtroom observation opportunities in front of several magistrate and district court judges, both in Minneapolis and St. Paul. It has given me a greater appreciation for what public defenders do across the board, but especially in the federal system.
Working with the attorneys in this office was incredible. They took a great interest in working with the law clerks in a collaborative manner. I learned a great deal about different tactics and ways to navigate the federal criminal system to better advocate for your client.
Working at the federal level meant that, since I am a law student, I could only work in a volunteer capacity and not in a paid position. This experience would not have been possible for me without the stipend provided by the Public Interest Law Fellowship program and I am grateful for all of those who provided gifts to make it a reality. It has been an invaluable experience to have this breadth of exposure and opportunities. In fact, it has changed the trajectory of my career. I will continue working with the federal defender’s office this semester and hope to pursue a career in public defense.