Interning Beyond the Day-to-Day

This is the next in a series of posts by recipients of the Career Services Summer Funding grant.  We’ve asked funding recipients to reflect on their summer experiences and talk about the industries in which they’ve been spending the summer.  You can read the entire series here.

This blog is by Harry Cooperman, CAS ’16

Standing in a small room with seven people but only two chairs, I watched as the prosecutor’s eyes digested the sympathetic expression on the face of the boyish-looking-man who was just 22 years old.

The man had pled guilty to minor drug-related offenses months before. He was on probation now, his behavior supervised by a federal probation officer. The purpose for the meeting was for the man to explain why he had violated the terms of his probation by smoking marijuana.

“You can’t keep doing this,” the prosecutor sternly told the defendant. “You can’t keep screwing up.”

The 22-year-old man was ready with excuses as he began to defend himself. He knew it was a mistake. He said he would stop. He said he was expecting a child. He realized that he couldn’t continue to screw up — he needed to be there for his kid.

“I’ll do anything,” the man pleaded.

In this case, the man’s interests and the interests of justice were aligned. The prosecutor was on his side. She thought there was good in him, and believed that he could reform. She wanted to keep him out of jail for now.

Moments later, when the prosecutor appeared before a judge to discuss punishment for this man, she took his side in open court. She asked that he not be put in the ‘big house’ for his small screw up. In exercising her prosecutorial discretion, she asked only that the conditions of his probation be increased — that his movements be restricted and monitored by the federal probation office — because she believed in him and his ability to reform.

The judge ultimately listened to her arguments and opted not to put him behind bars. But after the court proceedings, the prosecutor reminded the baby-faced man that he couldn’t screw up anymore. This was the last straw. The next time, he would go to jail.


I realize this (the interaction above) is just part of the prosecutor’s job. Working for justice means more than just putting criminals on trial — it means ensuring that the public interest be served not only in convictions, but (where appropriate) for the benefit of the defendants as well. I had never before witnessed a prosecutor use their discretion like this. It was something that I knew that I would remember, but at the time I didn’t realize why.

As an intern in the Public Information Office of the United States Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York this summer, my duties included reading through newspapers for articles about the office, drafting the daily press guidance, and fielding calls that came into the office (generally, they came from reporters). But how I ended up as one of the seven people in the room with that 22-year-old-baby-face convict had nothing to do with my daily job.

I first met the prosecutor when she came into the Public Information Office to introduce herself to some of us newcomers and to discuss one of her cases. She was so sweet and energetic that when I passed by her office the next day, I made a point of saying hello. I told her that I was interested in public corruption, and that my co-intern liked violent and organized crime (we liked learning about those topics, that is). Having upcoming work related to both of those topics, the prosecutor said that she would be more than happy to invite my co-intern and me to watch future proceedings she had. Later that day, she came into our office and invited us to come with her to the event I just recounted.

Weeks later, I can still remember standing in that overcrowded room with six other people as what I recounted above unfolded before my eyes. But why did this proceeding stick out so vividly in my mind?

Maybe it is because gang violence and drug use are so prevalent on the evening news.  Maybe it is because I find it troubling that some criminal behavior is so deeply rooted in how someone is brought up.  (I think those are definitely part of the answer). But it also might be because the experience was something different — it gave me the opportunity to observe the intimate, yet mundane aspect of prosecutors’ jobs outside of the courtroom. It was a chance for me to see how securing justice for the everyday defendant means as much to a prosecutor as securing a guilty conviction in the court cases that make headlines.

While my daily intern work in the Manhattan federal prosecutor’s office taught me about the variety of cases the office handled, how the office functioned, and its relationship with the public, I feel like some of the truly enlightening experiences were the ones (like this one) that existed beyond the day-to-day.

Internships — especially unpaid internships — are about learning. In fact, Department of Labor guidelines require that in order for a for-profit-sector internship to be unpaid, the educational benefit provided to the intern must be greater than the service that he or she provides to the employer. [HC1]

With internships, as with most college courses, what you learn is a function of how much you try to maximize your learning. In class, that means both completing assigned readings on time and thinking critically about coursework. In an internship, that means more than just doing your job, but also putting yourself out there at work. Chatting with a colleague down the hall (even if it’s just because you think he or she is fun to talk to — normally that’s the way things start) can give you insight into the work that they’re doing. Listening to a guest speaker at an office luncheon — or even after work — will provide more benefit than checking your email (or Facebook) in that time period.

When an opportunity to experience something different comes your way, seize it. If you’re interested in learning about a new topic, go out and find someone who might be willing to teach you. It’s those experiences — for me, these included: witnessing a prosecutor help give proper justice to a minor offender; sitting in on calls with the FBI as a prosecutor begins an investigation; and watching a prosecutor prepare a witness for his case — that you never forget.

So my advice to future interns is this: live beyond the day-to-day! Immerse yourself and try something new.  Putting yourself out there at work can lead to an experience you might only have once in your time at the office. Your daily work will surely be memorable and can teach you a great deal, but what you will remember most about your job won’t be what you did every day — it’ll be what you didn’t.

[HC1]This is true for “for-profit” internships, but not necessarily true for government internships:

Author: Student Perspective

Views and opinions from current Penn students.