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Witness Stand: New Grads Reflect on Law School

A Q&A with the Class of 2016’s Catherine Underwood (right) and Caitlin Drogemuller (left), who were chosen for this piece following their win in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit on a prisoner’s rights case — the third such win for the St. Thomas Law Appellate Litigation Clinic in as many years. They begin their professional legal careers together this fall as associates with Dorsey & Whitney LLP.

What drives you to become a lawyer? How does your answer differ now from when you came to St. Thomas Law in the summer of 2013?

CU: I’d always thought about becoming a lawyer, and when I entered law school it was because I liked the way it would fit with my undergraduate philosophy major and because I was attracted to a career where I would be always learning new things. Now having graduated, I still love those things. In addition, however, there’s a sense that I have been privileged with this specialized understanding of the law that enables me to do something for clients that they can’t do as well for themselves. People sometimes like to make fun of lawyers, but this specialized understanding and skill set that they possess, if used in the service of others, can make them powerful forces for good in our communities.

CD: I grew up wanting to be a lawyer, most likely because when I was young somebody in my family joked that with all of my talking, I was bound to become one. When I was old enough to actually understand what lawyers do, this goal was confirmed: I wanted an education that I could use to make a real impact in this world. Unlike so many of my wonderful friends at St. Thomas Law, however, I never wanted a career in the public sector. I wanted to be a business lawyer, working with businesses to reach their goals and solve complex problems. When I entered law school, that is what drove me, and to an extent, it still drives me now. However, my education at St. Thomas Law has also really given me a deep appreciation for the need to give back to the community through pro bono work, and has caused me to recognize that working at a large firm or in a business setting does not mean that I cannot do good for society as well.

What do you see as the defining moment — or turning point — in your law school career?

CD: I think the turning point in my law school career actually happened pretty early, in the second semester of 1L year, when all 1Ls were asked to research and write a summary judgment brief in Lawyering Skills II. The turning point was when I argued my summary judgment motion in front of Professor [Ben] Carpenter. Prior to that point, I had been undecided as to whether I wanted to be a litigator or transactional attorney, but after standing up in the moot courtroom and making my argument, I was hooked – I wanted to be a litigator.

What is the one textbook case you will never forget?

CU: Buck v. Bell. It’s one of the first cases that St. Thomas had us read, and it came up during orientation week in Foundations of Justice. It’s a tragic case where the U.S. Supreme Court held in the 1920s that the forced sterilization of patients at certain state-run psychiatric facilities did not violate the constitutional rights of those patients. It was a startling wake-up call to us about the importance of what we were setting out to do as law students: The law matters, it affects real people, and we have a chance to give them a voice.

Tell us about your most memorable professor moment.

CD: It would have to be with Professor [Hank] Shea, when I was in his Investigations class. He structures the class in a great, hands-on way where students are able to learn from and interact with leading professionals in the investigations field. One week, we practiced interviewing these professionals as though they were witnesses or suspects in a case, and I was paired with Professor Shea (because there were not quite enough visiting professionals to go around). This was one of the first times that I really interacted with him, but he gave me such thoughtful, direct, relevant feedback on how our exercise went that I could truly say I was a better interviewer by the end of that very class period.

CU: During on-campus interviews at the beginning of 2L year, Professor [Elizabeth] Schiltz, who had taught me in Contracts the year before, saw me in the hall and asked how the interview process was going. At the time I was really frustrated, and when I told her that, she immediately offered to do a mock interview with me over her lunch hour the following day. Her feedback was so helpful in getting me to a point where I felt like I owned the interview and was able to effectively communicate all the things I wanted to. So in the end she taught me more than just Contracts – she gave me an invaluable skill that I’ll have for my entire professional life.

Tell us about the most rewarding experience you had with your mentor through St. Thomas’ Mentor Externship Program.

CU: This year I watched my mentor appear pro bono on behalf of clients who were being evicted from their home. When she won her motion, it was so rewarding to know that these deserving people would not be on the streets, but it also was a rewarding experience because I was able to see how a few hours of donated attorney time can make a world of difference for people who cannot represent themselves as effectively. My mentor was a transactional, in-house attorney who didn’t do housing law on a daily basis, but her generosity with her time and her willingness to use her legal training for others gave these people a voice and ultimately a home.

Tell us about your experience in the Appellate Litigation Clinic.

CU: My experience in clinic was the single best way that St. Thomas could have prepared me for practicing law. In the Appellate Litigation Clinic, we were given a real case and the entire lower-court record, and we had to come up with compelling arguments for our client on appeal. We knew that something real was at stake, which made this different from the exercises we had done in brief-writing before. So in that way it was very much like legal practice. But clinic also provided a benefit that practice normally doesn’t: every step of the way, we were able to sit down with Professor [Gregory] Sisk and get feedback and advice from him. He showed us how to turn our writing into something that would be persua- sive to 9th Circuit judges and spent countless hours practicing with us to get us ready for oral arguments. His mentorship was an invaluable benefit.

CD: I believe that clinical education is really essential to a good legal education. Clinical education teaches students the actual nuts and bolts of legal practice; it teaches how to be a lawyer and deal with clients, rather than just the fundamentals of a certain area of law. I was involved in clinics both my 2L and 3L year [Bankruptcy Litigation Clinic and Appellate Clinic], and would not trade that experience for the world. These experiences allowed me to get up before judges in both trial and appellate courts, which will make me so much more comfortable doing so as a practicing attorney.

Walk us through what you felt as you argued your first case in court.

CD: At first, I was incredibly nervous – my introduction was fairly long, considering that my part of the argument only lasted six minutes, and I wanted to get through it before I was interrupted with questions. However, once I started talking, most of the nerves melted away. I did not get all the way through my intro- duction, but I actually welcomed the first question I received. All of the judges seemed engaged in my argument, so it genuinely felt as though we were just having a conversation. We had prepped incredibly well, so I felt confident responding to all of the questions asked of me, and before I knew it, my time was up. I remember the excitement really hitting me just as I sat down, and whispered to Catherine and Professor Sisk, “That was fun!”

What have you learned about yourself over the past three years?

CU: I’ve learned to be patient with myself and to persevere. I’ve learned to appreciate differences in people and to refine my own personal commitments and beliefs. I’ve also been reminded of the importance of family, friends and community, and what a blessing it is to find a place where you feel like you belong.

How do you plan to serve the common good in your legal career?

CD: In addition to generally serving the common good by providing the best legal representation possible to all of my clients, I want to have a very active pro bono practice. Last summer, I worked on a number of pro bono projects, but I really felt connected with the Tubman Project, which finds legal representation for women in cases involving an order for protection. It was very rewarding to see women in domestic violence situations walk a little taller because they knew that they had a lawyer on their side, and humbling to be that lawyer. I hope to continue to work for that cause and find other ways to give back to my community as I begin my career.

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