NYC Legal Aid Society: "An Awesome Privilege" to Serve the Poor

At The Legal Aid Society in New York City, interns are not sitting behind a desk or stuck in a cubicle. Instead, students like Duke senior Chris Donati get to take a truly hands-on approach to providing assistance with legal services to impoverished New Yorkers.

In his internship experience, Donati was offered the opportunity to take a variety of legal and investigative classes on rules of evidence, discovery, investigations, and ethics, as well as shadow investigators out in the field and often, on the crime scene. 

The Legal Aid Society was created in 1876, making it the nation’s oldest law firm for the disadvantaged.   More than 1,500 lawyers, social workers, investigators, paralegals and other professionals offer comprehensive legal services in the fields of criminal, civil and juvenile law.

As director of the Investigators and Paralegal Programs for the criminal practice at The Legal Aid Society, Alanda Edwards is responsible for recruiting investigator intern candidates who show a commitment to social justice. As part of her duties, Edwards runs the Investigator Intern Certificate Program. In her 24 years at Legal Aid Society as both a criminologist and an educator, Edwards has proven a longstanding commitment to both assisting in the practice and teaching public interest law.

She also has taught courses on paralegal studies and investigations at a variety of New York academic institutions, including Long Island University and Baruch College.  Additionally, she has been a guest lecturer at Hunter College and in the graduate studies department at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice at CUNY.

Edwards has a bachelor’s degree in political science from State University of New York College at Old Westbury College and a master’s degree in criminal justice from John Jay Graduate School.  In May of 2007, Edwards was inducted into the National Criminal Justice Honor Society for maintaining a 4.0 grade point average during her first year of her doctoral studies. She continues to devote her professional life to public interest law and the pursuit of justice for low-income New Yorkers.

Drawing on her breadth of experience, Edwards teaches criminal justice, criminal law, forensics, ethics, investigations, and criminology to investigators, paralegals and interns at The Legal Aid Society. After completing the courses, each intern is assigned to shadow staff investigators in the field for hands-on training, and ultimately paired with teams of lawyers and investigators to assist on cases.

Once on these teams, interns are also offered the chance to interact and collaborate with other members of the defense team such as paralegals, forensic social workers and interpreters. Interns apply their knowledge and training to field tasks, comprising everything from interviewing witnesses to taking crime scene photos to potentially taking the witness stand during a trial.

While Legal Aid accepts students from all majors, Edwards says she looks for a few common traits in all intern candidates.  First and foremost, they must have a passion for The Legal Aid Society’s mission.

“We have the awesome privilege to serve the underprivileged,” Edwards explains.  For that reason, she tries to assess during the interview process how the candidate feels about poverty, the law and due process to ensure a commitment to The Legal Aid Society’s goals. According to Edwards, Duke intern candidates stand out during the interview process as highly prepared students who know what they want.

At the end of the summer, interns write a reflective paper that details their responsibilities over the summer, how they have changed and what they have taken away from their experience with The Legal Aid Society. “Almost all of the interns say they learned about teamwork.  And, they talk about how passionate The Legal Aid Society’s attorneys and other team members are,” Edwards says. 

The fact that many interns have made the switch to permanent employees at The Legal Aid Society speaks volumes about the quality of the Investigator Intern program. Edwards herself started out there as a 14-year old high school intern through the New York City's Summer Youth Employment program. The experience inspired her to further her education and return to The Legal Aid Society.

Photos by Rohanna Mertens