Nadia Udochi ’20, front, with her mentor, New York State Supreme Court Justice Debra James ’75, J.D. ’78.

Students learn about the law in NYC summer program

In a wood-paneled courtroom in New York City, Nadia Udochi ’20 sits at one of the lawyer’s tables, her head bent over a stack of papers. Law clerk Mark McGowan is showing her how a case is organized, beginning with a lawsuit and an answer, then moving through the process of discovery resulting in motions, hearings, a jury or bench trial and a decision.

As Udochi works, she can look directly at the bench that’s normally occupied by her summer mentor, New York State Supreme Court Justice Debra James ’75, J.D. ’78. On days when the judge has trials, Udochi sits in the back, observing the attorneys and taking notes.

“I want to be able to use my law degree for something important,” Udochi said.

Udochi, a government major minoring in law and society and inequality studies, is taking Cornell’s Prelaw Program in New York City, offered through the School of Continuing Education and Summer Sessions, which includes a three-week class led by C. Evan Stewart ’74, J.D. ’77, a senior partner of Cohen & Gresser LLP, followed by an internship.

Udochi is passionate about the law and is considering a career that melds law with business. She said the summer program is helping her learn more about the rigors of law school and about the variety of careers available to lawyers.

At Cornell, Udochi has taken an introductory course at the law school and a law and literature class, which she said prepared her for the work in Stewart’s summer class – kind of.

“I’m already being taught by the best in the field,” she said. “And although I know nothing prepares you for law school, I’ve already heard about the most important cases in the history of law, so I feel like I’ll be a step ahead.”

Stewart has been leading the program for 13 years. He believes in using the Socratic method, calling on random students in each class and asking them specific details about the case they read the night before, as well as other cases they’ve studied.

“A lot of students come to class thinking they understood what they read, but in class we deconstruct the readings and talk about what they should have taken away,” Stewart said. “Often that results in a very different understanding.”

Stewart also includes discussions about the demands of a law career and legal ethics.

“Some students have a very idealized view of what a lawyer does,” he said, “so I try to provide a reality check for them.”

Jaewon Baek ’20 said Stewart’s class, though rigorous, has made her even more committed to studying law. Baek’s internship is with Stewart’s firm, though she is supervised by Daniel Tabak, another partner in the firm.

“He makes sure that I get a full, well-rounded experience by connecting me to lawyers from a wide range of areas in the law, and schedules opportunities for me to go beyond the firm to observe law in action,” Baek said.

At her internship, Baek, a philosophy major, has worked on research projects related to cryptocurrency, observed a company bankruptcy proceeding and read complaints and documents that will be used as evidence in upcoming cases at the firm, which represents clients in financial services, employment law, privacy, security and intellectual property and technology.

James, who has hosted interns in the program for more than a decade, said the summer program offers them a chance to think critically about a law career before they commit to the expense and effort of law school.

James has schooled Udochi in the structure and operations of New York’s court system and the three branches of government. “There’s a thought that young people aren’t learning enough about civics,” James said. “It’s important to have a sense of how the government is organized.”

All of the intern hosts say they welcome the infusion of new energy.

“Young people bring enthusiasm to the office,” James said. “Sometimes you get a little jaded, but when we have this fresh outlook on what we do, it energizes us.”

Kathy Hovis is a writer for the College of Arts and Sciences.

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