Launching a Public Interest Career after a clerkship: An Interview with Eric Krupa, NDLS 2016

Last week, I got the chance to catch up with Eric Krupa, who graduated from Notre Dame Law School in May 2016. Throughout law school, Eric was interested in pursuing a career in public interest and in September 2018, he will begin work in the prestigious Coffin Family Law Fellowship at Pine Tree Legal Assistance, where he will represent low-income residents in Maine in family law matters. Rather than going directly into public interest law after graduation, Eric started his career in a clerkship. Eric’s background and career path is a perfect example of how a clerkship can set you up for a great public interest career. Let’s jump into my interview with Eric!

KMB: Tell me about what you’re doing now.

EK:  I’m clerking for Judge Peter Bogaard in the New Jersey Superior Court, Family Division. Next fall, I will move to Maine to work as the Coffin Family Law Fellow at Pine Tree Legal Assistance.

KMB: What kind of work are you doing in your clerkship?

EK: It’s a trial-level court, so I’m behind the scenes writing memos, drafting orders based on motion papers, contacting litigants and attorneys, mediating cases, and conducting case management conferences. It’s a little bit of everything, and it’s not the type of work I got used to doing in law school.

KMB: How do you mean that it’s not the work you’re used to doing in law school?

EK: In law school, you have a night to read and brief a case and then talk about it the next day as a class. The worst that’ll happen is you’ll seem unprepared during a cold call. Here, I have stacks of motions to get through in a day and oftentimes the Judge relies on me, or at least my input, to make decisions There is a ton of information to get through and very little time to do it, but one way or another, you have to put together memos and draft orders on schedule. The first time I faxed out an order with a parenting schedule I helped draft, I was super nervous. I’m not used to my decisions affecting people. It takes some getting used to.

KMB: Your judge is in the family law division. Do you only deal with family law matters?

EK: Yes. It’s family law only. Judge Bogaard deals mostly with matrimonial dockets currently, where the parties are getting, or have been, divorced. The issues are varied though. I’ve dealt with everything from contracts to tax to criminal issues.

Also, all trial court clerks in New Jersey mediate landlord-tenant and small claims matters once a week. You take a mediation class for a day and a half when you first start out, and then you’re thrown in.

KMB: How did you land your clerkship?

EK: I was interviewing at public defender’s offices my 3L year and wasn’t really considering clerkships—mostly because I wasn’t at the top of my class, I didn’t have any journal experience, and I wasn’t on moot court. I figured a clerkship would be a reach. But, as it turns out, New Jersey has a robust clerkship program for trial courts, which was more my speed. I saw the post for Judge Bogaard’s clerkship on Symplicity, I had seen him speak at Notre Dame the year before, and I figured I would apply. I had a good talk with the Judge when I interviewed and thought the clerkship would be a great way to gain experience in court and get on a better track to working in civil legal services.

KMB: Now, let’s go back to the beginning. Why did you decide to go to law school?

EK: I didn’t really know what my plan was going into law school. I had an undergraduate degree in religion and knew I couldn’t do much with that professionally, so I thought the next step to getting employed was obtaining an advanced degree. My uncle is a corporate attorney. I talked to him and everyone else in my family and decided law school was a good step in my career.

KMB: How did you end up getting interested in public interest work?

EK: Early on, sitting in class, talking with other students, getting to know professors, and being exposed to our legal system, I developed an interest in criminal defense work. I went to work for the Public Defender’s Office in Hartford, Connecticut the summer after my first year of law school. Being on the ground and seeing how my clients were interacting with the legal system is when I really became interested in legal services work and providing a voice to people who can’t afford their own attorney. My clients were just confused in the courtroom, and it felt good to be able to explain the process to them and provide them with a voice.

KMB: How did you develop more of an interest in civil work after working at the Public Defender?

EK: I started to realize you can do more for your clients and develop more of a relationship with them practicing civil law. For a while I was interested solely in public defense and that is really where I saw my career going. My second summer, I worked in Yale Law School’s Criminal Justice Clinic.  That experience made me realize I wanted to broaden my horizons and not just limit myself to criminal law. I worked around people in consumer and foreclosure clinics, and I became interest in their work.

KMB: Tell me more about your experience at Yale during your 2L summer.

EK: I was working in the basement of Yale Law School with 10-15 other interns. Yale runs their clinics through the summer, so they hire interns from other law schools. I saw the posting on Symplicity and applied.

I worked on primarily two cases the entire summer. I did some research on the parole process in Connecticut, some work on federal clemency petitions, and I helped with some other small projects. But, it was primarily appeals related to juvenile offenders brought into adult court and sentenced to life in prison. We were appealing on the ground that their sentences violated the 8th Amendment and requesting new sentencing hearings in compliance with a couple of U.S. Supreme Court cases. That’s where I learned how to be a little more creative in defending clients. As a young attorney, you generally shy away from novel arguments for clients because you don’t really know what you’re talking about and you don’t want to seem like an idiot. Being on a team of experienced attorneys, I got more comfortable in strategic discussions. I learned the value of thinking outside of the box and pursuing all arguments in any given case.

KMB: What other experiences did you take advantage of in law school?

EK: I enrolled in as many externships, clinics, and other practical experiences as I could—as many practical courses as I could take. I went to Appalachia fall of my 2L year. I externed with Judge Manier in the St. Joseph County Superior Court spring of my 2L year. 3L fall, I enrolled in the Public Defender Externship. 3L spring, I worked in the Economic Justice Clinic with Professor Fox and that was great experience. It really solidified my wanting to work in legal services.

KMB: Did you ever interview with law firms?

EK: I did, but I never really gained any traction in those interviews because the day to day of it was never what I was interested in. I would go in and try to sell myself to a firm and they could see past it pretty quickly. They would ask why I worked for the public defender and had so much experience in legal services and what could I say?

Maybe at some point I will turn to private practice, but right now, I want to try to make a public interest career work.

KMB: Many students hesitate to pursue public interest work because they’re worried about paying back loans. Would you mind sharing how you’re budgeting on a public interest salary with loans?

EK: I think of my lifestyle now as just a continuation of the law school lifestyle, when I was living on loans and being frugal, and it was just fine. It’s intimidating when you don’t have money saved and have loans to pay off. But it’s definitely possible.

I’m taking advantage of Notre Dame’s loan repayment program and the Coffin Fellowship also has a loan repayment program I may be able to take advantage of.  I made the mistake this year of getting an apartment that’s a little too expensive. Fortunately, when I move to Maine, rent will be much cheaper.

If you look at it as a comparison of working in big law vs. a public interest salary, the difference is huge. It’s $100,000. But if you’re not working for a big law firm, you’re probably making $75,000-100,000 and not getting any help with loans. Then you’re really in a similar financial situation to someone with a public interest salary. If after my clerkship I were to go work for a small firm with a family law practice in the New Jersey area, I wouldn’t be totally comfortable financially.

Day to day and week to week, I am just fine. I do have to sacrifice small things. For example, this year, I couldn’t go back to ND to see a football game. Little things like that you have to sacrifice but day to day life is good.

KMB: After your clerkship, you mentioned you are starting a Coffin Law Family Fellowship. Tell me more about that.

EK: I start my Coffin Family Fellowship September of next year with Pine Tree Legal Assistance, which is a public interest organization that provides free civil legal assistance to disadvantaged people in Maine. Pine Tree has a robust family law practice and I will be a member of their team. I will be taking cases like any other family law practitioner would in the firm.

I will also have some side projects such as promoting the fellowship and presenting on family law issues to lawyers and judges in the area.

KMB: How did you get this fellowship?

EK: Everything just worked out perfectly. I had been interested in working in Northern New England for a long time. I grew up in Connecticut and always loved Northern New England. As I was about to graduate from Notre Dame, I talked to you about public interest fellowships. You told me about the Skadden fellowship, talked me through how to apply.

To apply for Skadden, you need to find an organization that will take you on as a fellow. I landed on Pine Tree, and we came up with a consumer law project focused on people living in mobile homes and mobile home parks. Skadden didn’t work out, but while I was working with Pine Tree on drafting my application, I built a relationship with the organization. That helped me to get my foot in the door.

KMB: How does the Coffin Family Fellowship work? Is it project-based like Skadden, EJW, and Notre Dame fellowships or is more of them slotting you into their work?

EK: It is more of them slotting me into their work. The fellowship has been around for 20 years. It started when private attorneys in Maine and Judge Frank Coffin, who was a federal judge at the time, realized that there was a big need for representation in family law matters for poor people. At the time, Pine Tree was much smaller. They got a few law firms together to fund the fellowship, and it’s been going ever since.

KMB: What is the practice of family law like? How would you describe it?

EK: An attorney has a much different relationship with his client in family law than as a public defender. There is more of a tension in public defense or criminal practice, where as a public defender, you’re still a part of the system—there’s a distrust of you even though you’re representing the person. In family law, you can build relationships, get to know your client, and figure out their needs and how to meet their goals.

In criminal defense, they say the client is always guilty and there’s some truth to that. Family law is the opposite. People are raising kids on their own and need child support or they are victims of domestic violence and their stories wouldn’t be heard otherwise. But for legal services attorneys in family law, these individual’s cases wouldn’t be heard at all.

KMB: What advice do you have for law students?

EK: What’s helped me the most is that I’ve been stubborn in interviewing and as honest as possible in writing cover letters and answering questions in interviews. That has led to some rejections, but it also led me to this opportunity in Maine, which I think is perfect for me.

Sometimes you go to an interview and try to be yourself and it’s a disaster. You know from almost the moment you walk in that it isn’t a good fit and so it’s just suffering for the next 25 minutes. I was able to go up to Maine and have really honest and open conversations with the Coffin Hiring Committee. That feels really good when you finally find yourself in that situation. I think it’s important to have patience.

Conclusion

Eric is happy to talk to current students so if you want to get connected, don’t hesitate to reach out and I will put you in touch. Also, Judge Bogaard hires summer clerks and perennially interviews Notre Dame students for a clerkship in his chambers so if you want to learn more about those opportunities, I encourage you to get in touch with Eric. Of course, I am always here to talk through public interest career paths and your public interest job search. Please reach out!

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