From their first day at St. Thomas Law, one thing students hear often is that being a lawyer is about relationships. To best serve their clients, they must be good listeners, build trust and operate with integrity. Students are also provided with ample opportunities to cultivate these skills.
Second-year law student Esha Syal did just that this summer as a certified student attorney with the Ramsey County Public Defender’s Office. She pursued the position as part of St. Thomas Law’s Legal Externship Program, which offers students the opportunity to earn credit and gain relevant professional experience.
“I honestly loved the interpersonal aspect of the externship,” Syal said. “I enjoyed talking to people, and it was gratifying to interview a client, get to know parts of their life story and represent them in court.”
A public defender may be assigned by the court when a person who cannot afford an attorney is charged with a misdemeanor, gross misdemeanor or felony with a possibility of jail time.
“I interviewed clients who qualified for a public defender, mainly in prison, and then I represented them for first appearances and arrangements in front of a district court judge,” Syal said.
She says it was concerning to her how many people cannot afford an attorney, but do not qualify for a public defender because in Minnesota they must make less than $16,000 a year.
“While a good amount of people qualify for the public defender’s office, a vast amount of people do not,” Syal said. “Public defense is a type of law I would love to practice; however, I want to do something where I am also capable of helping those who are in that middle income area.”
In addition to helping clarify the type of law she would like to practice, the externship also allowed Syal to experience firsthand the sensitive situations lawyers encounter and how to react with empathy for her client, while also working in their best interest.
“My favorite experiences were also the hardest,” she said. “It was difficult, especially at first, interviewing someone as they cry to you, and then a judge rules against them. I am a person that gets emotionally involved and it was difficult because I’m sitting there listening to this person cry and feel so horrible, and you want to help them, but no matter how well you argue their case, the judge makes the ultimate decision.”
Syal said being surrounded by the supportive and knowledgeable attorneys and staff at the Ramsey County Public Defender’s Office helped her get through some of the tougher cases she worked on and helped her grow as a law student and future lawyer.
“Their work is incredible, and all of the people I have met and worked with genuinely want to help people as much as possible,” she said.