By Dustin Robinson
I spent this past summer as an intern with the Drug Enforcement Administration’s Office of Chief Counsel. Surprisingly enough, I did very little, if any, work with drug issues: I was their civil litigation intern. In effect, my section functioned as the DEA’s lawyer in suits filed by both outside parties and DEA employees against the agency. For the most part, this resulted in Federal Tort Claims Act cases and employment discrimination cases (heavier on the latter, really). It was interesting to engage in what I and likely other law students infrequently consider: defense of a government agency.
The summer was essentially a crash course in employment law. As one who knew next to nothing about the area beforehand, I appreciated the willingness of the other attorneys to offer support and guidance. The employment context presented a particular conundrum of sorts: I wondered, as an EJF recipient, how it was that I was advancing social justice. I’d bet good money that a lot more EJF funding around the country goes to students working on behalf of plaintiffs in employment discrimination cases than to those who were in my position. The conclusion I reached, however, was that the integrity of employment law, the vitality of Title VII, and the legitimacy of the EEOC all turn on an effective balancing of the interests. Employment discrimination suits? Not always legitimate. The governmental workplace, in particular, makes it so incredibly easy for an employee to engage in EEO action that it becomes almost a matter of course anytime the slightest disciplinary action is taken against an employee (let alone the near impossibility of actually firing, or, in governmental parlance, “removing” someone). The inherent frivolity of a number of these suits would weaken public and institutional support for the viability of a legitimate discrimination suit.
All that being said, I was pleased to learn how vigilant governmental attorneys working for an agency’s defense are. There was no hesitation to settle a claim that seemed legitimate, there was a constant probing of the facts, there was a true loyalty to the DEA but also to the law. Having the opportunity to review documents with practicing attorneys, attend depositions with them, compose motions for summary judgment with them, was truly fulfilling. It’s often said, but never understood till experienced: you don’t appreciate your first year of law school until you actually take it into practice the following summer.
And, not to be left out, there were perks: a trip to the Supreme Court on a day that decisions were handed down, multiple field trips to the DEA training facilities at Quantico, and numerous workshops geared toward the interns. All in all, a worthwhile experience and glimpse into the inner legal workings of the federal government.