Humanities Scholars explore future careers through legal internships

Prameela Kottapalli ’23 and Louise Wang ’23 spent the summer in New York City courtrooms and legal offices, reviewing evidence, reading cases and learning about the complex processes of the legal system, thanks in part to grants from the Humanities Scholars Program (HSP) in the College of Arts & Sciences.

Wang interned with the New York County District Attorney’s office while Kottapalli interned with the Bronx Defenders, a nonprofit that defends low-income people in a wide variety of cases.

“I’ve done a lot of advocacy work already in the field of immigration law,” said Kottapalli, who has volunteered with Justice for Migrant Families, a community organization that supports detained immigrants. “But seeing the legal side of these scenarios and how intertwined they are, has informed how I want to be as an advocate.”

Her daily work in the city involved reading client stories and helping to put together their “dream index,” a file that judges view when they are deciding an immigration case. The clients she works with may be fleeing political violence, conflicts, social turmoil, climate disasters or other violence, she said.

“I get to know their stories and understand a lot of the trends that bring about these situations where people have no choice but to leave,” she said.

At Bronx Defenders, she met lawyers involved not only in individual cases, but also working for broader policy changes on issues ranging from immigration reform to mass incarceration to inequality within the criminal justice system.

woman standing outside courthouse
Provided Prameela Kottapalli outside the NY County Supreme Court Building in New York City.

“I’m gaining an even deeper, more complex understanding of these issues,” said Kottapalli, a College Scholar who is also majoring in government and feminist, gender and sexuality studies.

Kottapalli said her summer position was a “dream internship. The Bronx Defenders are renowned on a national level for their work, and I was hoping I would get this position.” The HSP grant helped her to sublet an apartment and pay for food and transportation for the summer.

For Wang, her daily routine involved a trek to the Manhattan Criminal Courthouse, joining 22 other undergrads and 50 law school students as interns.

“I had no idea what a prosecutor’s office did until this summer,” she said. “You’re constantly learning from attorneys and paralegals and you get to really experience everything that goes on.”

Much of Wang’s time was spent on investigatory work, gathering and reviewing evidence including photos and surveillance video from homicides, robberies and assaults. She was also able to sit in on numerous trials, including the case of Richard Rojas, who was cleared of responsibility this summer for running his car into a crowd of people in Times Square in 2017.

“I would read about these cases on the news, and then come into my office and the attorney who is handling it is sitting right across from me,” Wang said.

Along with her daily duties, the DA’s office held multiple educational programs and lectures where attorneys talked about their cases, their careers and about how the justice system is set up in the city.

“I was able to meet a lot of experienced attorneys who have handled amazing cases and ask them questions,” she said. “I can’t get that experience in a classroom.”

Wang, a government and English major, said she plans to take the Law School Admission Test (LSAT) this fall and will probably apply to law school in the spring. She’s not certain what kind of law she might want to study, but is thankful that she now knows how a prosecutor’s office functions. “I still have no idea what it would be like to be a public defender or work in a private law firm or the federal government,” she said. “I’m a very curious person, so I’m open to where the field of public service will take me.”

The HSP money helped Wang to sublet an apartment close to the train line and also pay for train fares, food and utilities. “The extra support net from Cornell and HSP made me able to focus on the internship and not have to worry about how much money I was spending,” she said.

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woman outside courthouse
Jesse Winter Louise Wang outside the Manhattan Criminal Courthouse, where she worked this summer, in New York City.