Interning for the Circuit Court of Cook County

I just met with Rich Hansen, a career law clerk for Judge Brigid McGrath, an Associate Judge in the Law Division at the Circuit Court of Cook County. He gave me a good overview of how and when to apply for an internship in the Cook County Circuit Court, the type of work that interns do, and how to succeed as an intern. I also spoke with Rich about how he landed his job as a career clerk and what his daily work is like.

Many Notre Dame law students are interested in working for the Circuit Court of Cook County over the summer. Fortunately, there are many internship opportunities available. 

The Circuit Court of Cook County of the State of Illinois is the largest of the 24 judicial circuits in Illinois and one of the largest unified court systems in the world. It has more than 400 judges who serve the 5.1 million residents of Cook County within the City of Chicago and its 126 surrounding suburbs. More than 1 million cases are filed each year.

Notre Dame students can intern at the Cook County Trial Court over the summer or during the fall or spring semester through the Chicago Program. You can read generally about the legal internship program here.

The due dates for intern applications are:

Fall Semester: July 1
Spring Semester: November 1
Summer Semester: March 1

In terms of getting a summer job, the earlier that candidates apply, the better their chances of securing a summer internship. If you are interested in applying specifically to work for Brigid McGrath, contact me and I will put you in touch with Rich.

There are two ways to apply for an internship with the court.

The way that the majority of internships work is that resumes go through the Chief Judge of the court and he assigns the intern to a specific judge. The Chief Judge is concerned with fairness and wants to ensure that all judges in the court get the chance to have interns, which is why the process is centralized. This works well for law students because rather than applying to 400 judges individually, you can just send your materials to the Chief Judge and get assigned.

To apply through the Chief Judge, email a cover letter, resume, and writing sample to:

Melanie Lomax
Director of Administrative and Support Services
Email: Melanie.Lomax@cookcountyil.gov

Alternatively, you can apply to work for a specific judge. This is a better option if you have an interest in working for a particular judge or want to work on specific issues that you know a certain judge focuses on.

Either way, all resumes must go through HR. All interns need to get a badge, pass a drug test, and sign a paper stating that they are not working for a firm at the same time that they are interning for the court.

Rich mentioned that most of the interns work in the law library in the Daley Center rather than in the judge’s office. The reason is that the offices are quite small and there is no space for interns. As a result, some judges offer interns the chance to work remotely.

Typically, interns work closely with the judge’s clerk who assigns most of the projects. Interns working for Judge McGrath, for instance, will report directly to Rich and receive projects from him.

With the basics out of the way, I talked to Rich about what he likes to see in internship candidates, how to succeed on the job, and his own background.

KM: What do you like to see in internship candidates?

RH:  I does like to see some prior work experience and especially at least one legal job because that signals to me that the issues we discuss during the internship will not be a brand new language to the intern. My favorite way to pick interns is to give applicants an actual assignment, have them complete it, and then see how they did on the assignment. I understand that there is not always time for that but is definitely the best way to evaluate candidates.

Most cover letters are very similar. I tend to scan the cover letter really fast. Unfortunately, when trying to distinguish between candidates with similar backgrounds, GPA is one of the few things I have to go on.

At the end of the day, I am not extremely strict about who I hire as long as I think they will put work into doing a good job.

KM: How can students set themselves up to get the best internship experience possible?

RH: Interns should try to start earlier than necessary because you can spend a little more time on the first assignment and get your feet wet without having to worry too much about completing the assignment quickly. When it comes to externships during the semester, there are two weeks before classes start so just start your externship early. Build some hours up before the externship officially starts because something will inevitably come up during the semester that makes it difficult to get your hours in. It always does.

You get the most out of the externship if you work longer than just one semester. Sometimes it seems like by the time you teach an intern how to do something helpful, the internship is over.

KM: What are some of the common mistakes that interns make?

RH: The worst thing you can do is to meet with your supervisor when you are supposed to have finished the assignment and not have the assignment done. Ask questions.

If the assignment is going slow, tell your supervisor. I always encourages all externs to call me whenever. If they call me, I will either have an answer for them or be able to point them in the right direction and tell them to do more research. I want externs to tell me when they have gotten stuck so I can help.

I have seen that the less the extern understands, the less willing they are to ask questions and that is unfortunate. Students tend to not want to demonstrate that they don’t know things and then it builds on itself. But it is totally acceptable not to know things because externs are students and are learning and all supervisors know that.

KM: How did you get your job as a career clerk?

RH: My career services office pointed me to the posting. During my summers in law school, I worked at a firm for one summer and as an intern at a federal court the other summer.

KM: What is your day to day life like?

RH: First of all, I have been clerking for Judge McGrath for a decade. I am her sole law clerk.

I do a lot of research, writing,  and during the morning call, I always have interactions with attorneys. I handle certain scheduling issues such as  substantive motion calls. I handle default judgments. The Judge prefers oral rulings over written opinions so I write a lot of bench memos as opposed to written opinions.

KM: What are your hours like?

RH: Pretty solidly 9-5. I don’t have to work on weekends. I have a good work/life balance.

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