Sept. 2, 2020 – It was a gathering not seen before in the State Bar of Wisconsin Diversity Clerkship Program: Coming together via Zoom, with participants joining in from across Wisconsin and the U.S.
Usually the clerks and employers of the program gather in person at the State Bar Center in Madison to celebrate the program.
But now in 2020, such gatherings could not happen in a pandemic. Instead, they gathered via Zoom, sharing their common experiences of making connections and practicing law in new ways. (Meet all the 13 clerks and their employers in a video of the event on the State Bar’s YouTube channel.)
The gathering showed a common theme among participants: Despite the challenges posed by life in a pandemic, as in past years, the soon-to-be lawyers discovered new practice areas and experienced what “real world” lawyering is like, mentored by their employers.
The program, now in its the 28th year, is led by Andrew Chevrez, chair of the State Bar Diversity & Inclusion Oversight Committee’s Law Student Outreach Subcommittee. It matches first-year law students of diverse backgrounds from Wisconsin law schools with legal offices for a 10-week summer clerkship. "This program gives law students the opportunity to build practical legal skills and knowledge," Chevrez said.
Amid a summer of civil unrest, “it is energizing to see these talented and engaged law students, and the employers who are giving them great opportunities. It highlights how meaningful and important this program is,” said Judge Carl Ashley, chair of the Diversity & Inclusion Oversight Committee. “What the employers are doing is vital to our profession and our communities.”
Here are a few stories of clerks and employers from their summer of 2020.
Clerk Josh Hernandez: An Eye-opening Opportunity
As a postgraduate at the University of Texas, Josh Hernandez spent hours analyzing the difference between exempt and nonexempt employees. The task energized him – and after getting this taste of legal analysis, Hernandez was hooked.
Legal analysis is an exercise “like mental jumping jacks – that involves breaking down the words on paper to process exactly what the writers were attempting to communicate, and thinking through the ramifications of the law,” Hernandez said.
Now, as a rising 2L at Marquette University Law School, Hernandez will be the first lawyer in his family when he completes his J.D. He chose Marquette for its academic offerings and out of a desire to move to the Midwest.
As a clerk, Hernandez spent the summer with the law firm Gingras, Thomsen and Wachs, a plaintiff-side firm with offices in Eau Claire, Madison, Milwaukee, and Waukesha. He conducted legal research in a broad range of legal areas.
“I had a great opportunity to take what I’ve learned and apply it to real world cases,” Hernandez said. “I researched personal injury, civil rights, and employment law questions, and wrote legal documents including demands, discovery, responses to summary judgment, and subpoenas. It was fantastic.”
Josh Hernandez holds Diversity Clerkship Program certificate. Hernandez clerked this past summer at Gingras, Thomsen and Wachs.
How soon can a 1L gain confidence in what they are doing? Quite quickly. His very first assignment was to research whether a client would receive a right to assumption regarding the spoliation of evidence.
“My research showed that the law was not going to help us,” Hernandez said. He spent a good part of an hour discussing the issue with the lawyer who assigned him the task. “Finally, he agreed that my interpretation of the law was legally sound.” And that, he says, is what success looks like for someone new to legal work.
Another assignment: creating a subpoena duces tecum. “I had no clue what that was,” Hernandez admitted. (For those who also don’t know: It’s a subpoena to appear in court to produce documents or other evidence). Fortunately, his training gave him the ability to research the document and create it correctly. “Simply gaining this type of legal experience is invaluable for a clerk.”
Among those challenges were doing it all amid social distancing during the COVID-19 lockdown, and Hernandez has yet to meet in person the lawyers he worked with. “Interestingly, what appeared limiting at first actually resulted in new opportunities,” Hernandez observed. He was able to work with attorneys from all office locations of Gingras, Thomsen and Wachs – at the same time doing so while at his home in Austin, Texas.
His clerkship experience with the firm was “eye-opening.” The attorneys manage a great number of cases at the same time, juggling all the legal deadlines, procedural time limits, and all the while adjusting to the COVID-19 shift to more digital world. “Gingras showed me I have a lot to look forward to once I graduate,” Hernandez said.
Employer Scott Thompson: An Easy, Concrete Step in Diversifying the Profession
Joining the State Bar’s clerkship program was a ‘no-brainer,’ says Scott Thompson of the Madison office of Gingras, Thomsen & Wachs, LLP. “It’s such a great, easy thing that you can do. When I learned about the program, my eyes lit up.”
The program makes finding new potential associates an easy task, says Thompson: The clerkship program vets students who apply for the program. Participating employers then interview each student – giving the students experience with interviews, and letting the employers get to know each of these future lawyers. Employers and students each list their preferences, and are subsequently matched. For the Madison office of Gingras, Thomsen & Wachs, the 2020 match was Hernandez. Another clerk, Francesa Voci, was matched for their Milwaukee office.
“Josh going to be a lawyers’ lawyer – he’s already an excellent communicator,” Thompson said. And that’s a bonus, especially during the time of pandemic, when people are separated physically. “With his knack for very effective communication, work proceeds swimmingly and according to plan.”
Law firms need excellent clerks, and the profession needs to become more diverse. “That’s what makes this program so essential – it’s a great practical resource for us,” Thompson said.
“All I have to do is interview the students, and as a result, we have amazing candidates – not just for our clerk positions, but as potential future members of our firm.”
In law as in life, you’ve got to have a good team, Thompson said. Every candidate he interviewed “impressed me in one way or another. Every single person in the program was capable, and we would have been happy to hire any one of them.”
Working with them so early in their legal careers is important. “It is an opportunity for us to hone their skills, to develop leaders for the future,” Thompson said. In fact, “it would be a tragedy for our practice if someone hasn’t scooped up these clerks already for future positions.”
The clerkship program helps diversify the practice of law in Wisconsin. “As leaders in our communities, lawyers have a duty to take steps to fight systemic racism,” Thompson said. “Participating in the program is one simple step in the right direction.”
Clerk Veronica Mantilla: Building Resilience
Veronica Mantilla, after completing an undergraduate degree in chemistry, spent three years with Teach for America, taught in New Haven, Connecticut, and Denver, while earning a master’s degree in education. While teaching, she was confronted with the systemic inequality that pervades education – especially for those with mental health issues and those with disabilities.
“I continue to feel passionate about it today – it is a huge problem,” Mantilla said. She chose law when she realized that, as a lawyer, she could make even more of a difference.
Now a rising 2L at U.W. Law School, she clerked with Alliant Energy in Madison – and the experience came with discoveries. “Law school is competitive,” Mantilla said. “But in-house lawyers are collaborative and jacks of all trades.”
Law students learn the skills necessary to tackle difficult issues. “We learn critical thinking and how to do research – skills needed regardless of your practice area.”
Veronica Mantilla, who clerked for Alliant Energy in Madison this summer.
Mantilla’s work at Alliant Energy involved working with human resources, regulatory, records management, and more. “Day to day, I wrote memoranda, conducted legal research, worked on contracts and contract negotiation, and created materials to help advise business units about attorney-client privilege – just to name a few.”
Her discoveries include these gems of wisdom: “Many attorneys are willing and excited to have people join their field, and want to help students. Also, be sure to foster relationships with people outside of the legal department,” said Mantilla.
She also made discoveries about herself. “If you foster resilience and perseverance by embracing challenges in difficult endeavors, those skills are transferable to any profession – and practice area,” she said. “The only way to improve is to take risks and to ask questions. Fortunately at Alliant, I could do that.”
Those discoveries will go with her. “Before attending law school I had a very limited understanding of what it means to be a lawyer. This clerkship helped me build relationships with many attorneys and law students – which I couldn’t do as easily on my own.”
The program is also a great way to explore differing areas of law. “In doing so, I can take a risk to try something different,” Mantilla said. “I’m excited at the prospect of how much more there is out there.”
Employer Lissa Koop: Getting to Know Those in the Pipeline Is Important
Fortunately, once they learned the “new normal” of video conferencing, the distance didn’t matter to clerk Veronica Mantilla and her mentor, Lissa Koop, senior attorney with Alliant Energy in Madison. They checked in frequently over video conferencing, with Mantilla working remotely from her home in Madison or at her parents’ home in New York.
“Veronica took the initiative to reach out to people and get to know them,” Koop said. Koop is in her first year managing Alliant Energy’s legal interns, while this was the company’s third year participating in the Diversity Clerkship program.
Despite the distance, Mantilla “really took on the challenges we gave her,” Koop said.
A diversified set of employees helps the company stay current – and that’s where participating in the Diversity Clerkship Program is important. “We need employees of all backgrounds. Having a diversity of viewpoints is key to a company trying to innovate and transform itself,” Koop said. “And we’ve learned that, with law students, you need to get into that pipeline early as a way to develop and elevate talent.”
Learning about what an in-house counsel role entails, Mantilla gained experience with issues of employment, litigation, and privacy – issues frequently seen across most industries. “Regardless of whether a clerk wants to pursue a career in energy – and we hope they do – this experience gives them a corporate-level view that can transfer to a lot of different settings,” Koop said.
As Mantilla’s manager, Koop also learned much. “We had a lot of good conversations about what diversity means, and how work places can better cultivate a richly diverse workforce,” Koop said. “With the backdrop of the ongoing racial justice movement, our company as a whole has been taking a harder look at those issues and what more we can do to address implicit bias and systemic racism. Veronica added an important voice to those discussions.”
Clerk Jesse Owens: Gaining Confidence
Green Bay native Jesse Owens will be the first lawyer in his family. “Law was always on my mind,” Owens said, admitting that his parents thought it would be a good fit, as he “liked to argue.”
And, with the ongoing racial justice movement, he’s contemplating civil rights law, but he is also keeping his options open following his summer clerkship experience. “I’m on a mission to help people. I’m going to find a way to do that.”
As a clerk for Bell Moore & Richter in Madison, he gained introductions to insurance defense, employment law, family law, and personal injury law. “There’s a lot of strategy in it,” Owens said. “You think broadly on the specific issues of a case, but you need to contemplate how each piece of evidence fits in. And in these areas, you are able to help a lot of folks.”
The experience was enlightening – being an attorney is not simply knowing the law, Owens said. “In addition to the strategy, you need to know the case law, and use it to position the issues. These are real situations and real life consequences for the work you do.”
Patti Putney of Bell Moore & Richter in Madison, right, and clerk Jesse Owens, left, pose with certificates at the firm in Madison.
Of great value, of course, is the confidence the clerks like Owens gain while doing legal work – often for the first time. “A lot of us were nervous going into our first clerkship positions,” he said.
For someone who learned teamwork playing basketball as a kid, he was glad to be treated as a member of the team at Bell Moore & Richter. “They made me feel I belonged, like I was smart enough, that I can do the work that needed to be done. That gives me a lot of confidence going into my 2L year,” Owens said.
Employer Patti Putney: Great Way to Introduce Practice Areas to Diverse Students
Heading into Bell Moore & Richter’s second summer participating in the Diversity Clerkship program, Patti Putney’s ideas for their clerk, Jesse Owens, were complicated by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Initially, Putney started Owens with part-time hours. “Actually, he gave us more hours than we asked for,” she said. The hours picked up at the midsize Madison firm as the summer went along. They worked a similar hybrid schedule – with some days working remotely and others at the office – so they would see each other a couple of times per week – socially distanced and with masks, of course.
“Unlike other years, he couldn’t attend depositions or hearings or trial in court. Helping them gain experience is much harder via Zoom – when you’re in a room together, there’s an entirely different dynamic. It’s a different experience this year.”
Despite the COVID-19 complications, the experience was a good one for both. “Jesse works very hard, he’s smart, and he’s a great writer,” Putney said. In fact, he’s pretty fantastic.”
Overall, participating in the clerkship program is a win-win for everyone involved. “It’s a great way to expose students from diverse backgrounds to civil litigation,” she said. “And having people from all walks of life in our firm inures to our benefit of the firm as a whole.”
Keeping diversity doesn’t end at hiring. “It’s bigger than just hiring – students from diverse backgrounds need to feel comfortable in our community,” Putney said. “Madison has a pretty homogenous legal community. Changing that would be good.”
About the State Bar Diversity Clerkship Program
Now in its 28th year, the Diversity Clerkship Program has placed more than 505 law students with more than 80 law firms, corporations, and government offices for an internship following the 1L year. The program is a summer employment experience that gives first-year law students with diverse backgrounds the opportunity to build legal practice skills and knowledge. Participating employers provide a paid, 10-week summer clerkship opportunity.
In participating in the program, students develop vital interviewing skills, actual professional legal experience, and greater confidence to give them a boost when going into their 2L clerkship interviews.
Special Thanks to our 2020 Employers
Alliant Energy, Madison
Bell Moore & Richter, S.C., Madison
Gingras, Thomsen & Wachs, Madison
Gingras, Thomsen & Wachs, Milwaukee
Hall, Render, Killian, Heath & Lyman PC
Law Office of Odalo J. Ohiku, Milwaukee
Madison City Attorney's Office
Milwaukee City Attorney's Office
Northwestern Mutual, Milwaukee
Wisconsin Department of Justice, Madison