How Maya Tierney ’22 learned valuable lessons as an intern with the Administrative Trials Unit at the NYC Department of Education
This past summer I had the incredible opportunity to intern with the Administrative Trials Unit at the NYC Department of Education. This opportunity was made possible by the generosity and efforts of the Harpur Law Council, Leah Joggerst, Alex Jablonski, and the alumni attorney I was placed with, Jordana Shenkman ’00.
For students interested in the Harpur Law Council Internship Program, applications are due on Wednesday, Feb. 23 and linked here. Regardless of whether or not you are interested in pursuing law, this program provides the chance to explore the field and network with fellow students as well as alumni.
After a year in which there were limited opportunities for hands-on learning, I was beyond grateful for my internship with the Department of Education. My placement in the Administrative Trials Unit dealt with a variety of cases involving teacher misconduct, including sexual abuse and corporal punishment.
In my first week, I was second-seating attorneys in a myriad of trials regarding corporal punishment, time and attendance, and cases in which criminal convictions came into play. I witnessed settlements, motions to dismiss cases, and an attorney unexpectedly calling in rebuttal witnesses.
The attorneys on both sides, as well as the arbitrators, were incredibly supportive of my learning. They allowed me into breakout rooms as they collaborated to discuss topics, such as uncooperative defendants. Additionally, I was consulting with the DOE attorneys during and after hearings. After the direct exam, in a breakout room, the attorney I was assigned asked how I thought it went and what I thought the opposing counsel would cross with.
This occurred frequently as the hearings went on, and was possible because administrative trials are less rigid procedurally than those in family or criminal court. In the administrative trials, attorneys could ask the arbitrator for 30 minutes to prepare for the next stage with no problems raised, while in criminal court, they might get a few minutes. Therefore, the nature of the trials and eagerness of the DOE attorneys made this placement a perfect learning environment for me.
There were other individuals who helped to make this such a valuable and educational experience. As the sole undergraduate intern, I worked on my first two memorandums with a law student. They were incredibly generous with their time and I learned a lot about legal research with their guidance.
I was able to have some fun, as well. One of the arbitrators turned out to be a Binghamton alumnus, who openly asked me about my major and career goals in front of the counsels and respondents. Right away, he made me feel welcome and I sat in on some of his cases. When there was a technical issue with our Zoom link, he jokingly told me I would have to take the case, which the respondent happily agreed with.
Funny moments like those contrast strongly with the nature of the work. An unanticipated and emotional reality of Zoom court, on my part, was watching the respondent’s reactions to the proceedings. With the ups and downs that come with these trials, I have thought about the advice an attorney gave me: We have to focus on bringing good by doing “our piece of the pie.” While I did not uncover what my “piece of the pie” will be, this summer gave me greater insight and a sense of direction.
I found my assignments meaningful because they were used to help the attorneys construct their arguments. My final assignment was a brief as to whether, in a 3020-a administrative proceeding, the Department and arbitrator can rely on hearsay as the sole basis for a finding of misconduct. The cases researched pointed to “yes,” even in times that contradictory evidence was presented. Turning in this assignment was a satisfying, tangible takeaway, applying everything I had learned throughout the summer.
This internship helped me to feel valued not only as part of the team, but as a student. In one of the cases I witnessed, there was a debate on whether or not a teacher should have used restraint on a student. In the closing remarks, the DOE attorney powerfully stated, “Teaching is a privilege, not a right. Students have the right to a safe learning environment.”
The work I did with the Department of Education was challenging, but I was impressed by the attorneys who have devoted their careers to fighting for the safety of students in my city. I had a wonderful, eye-opening experience, thanks to the practitioners and students who helped me grow this past summer.