By Joan Steffen, J.D. ’22
I chose Harvard Law School primarily for its breadth of clinical programs. Looking back as a graduating student who maxed out on clinical credits, I am so grateful for the insights, experience, and relationships I’ve gained from my clinical work. The Judicial Process and Trial Courts clinic was the perfect capstone to my law school career.
After ruling out applying for a judicial clerkship, I chose the Judicial Process Clinic for my 3L Spring. I still wanted an opportunity to work with a judge and see the courtroom from their side of the bench, without spending an entire year devoted a clerkship. As a prison abolitionist, I sought to better understand the workings of criminal trial courts in the context of mass incarceration. An internship at a trial court seemed like a great way to gain the perspective I needed.
The Judicial Process Clinic exceeded my expectations. Barbara Berenson and Judge John Cratsley, who run the clinic, paired me with the perfect judge: Judge Lisa Ann Grant at the Boston Municipal Court in Dorchester (BMC Dorchester). From the very first day, Judge Grant made me feel welcome in her chambers. She was always generous with her time, answering all my many questions with thoughtfulness and thoroughly explaining the court proceedings I observed. During my internship, I sat in on sessions presided over by each judge at BMC Dorchester and observed every stage of the criminal trial process, from arraignment to sentencing.
My internship with Judge Grant also gave me a chance to practice my legal research and writing – and to walk away with a solid writing sample. Judge Cratsley and Ms. Berenson conducted a seminar class on judicial writing early in the semester. Not only was it a good refresher on the best practices for legal writing in general, but it also helped me feel much more confident when it came time to draft documents for Judge Grant.
The Judicial Process Seminar complimented my internship experience with timely and topical classroom discussion. Judge Cratsley and Ms. Berenson bring a wealth of knowledge and experience to the classroom: Judge Cratsley sat 24 years in the Massachusetts Superior Court and Ms. Berenson served 15 years as a Senior Attorney at the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court. Our classroom discussions ranged from questions of judicial accountability to the struggle for racial equity in the courts and our guest speakers explained the court system from many vantage points. Class guests included several judges, a restorative justice practitioner, and a researcher of racial disparities in the Massachusetts criminal system. My favorite speaker was Judge Grant (of course), who shared her experience presiding over BMC Dorchester’s Recovery Court.
The Judicial Process Clinic gave me exactly what I was looking for: to see behind the curtain of the criminal legal system. It also helped me hone my legal research and writing skills and allowed me to engage with many of the questions facing our country’s trial judges. In addition to those interested in one day sitting on the bench, students pursuing criminal legal reform, public defense, and trial litigation should consider enrolling in the Judicial Process Clinic for an up close and personal experience in the trial courts.