By Andrew Cohen
Amid increasing upheaval in our nation’s capital, the UCDC Law Program is deepening its roots there.
Established by then Berkeley Law Dean Christopher Edley, Jr. in 2009, the unique initiative combines a full-time externship with a weekly seminar in Washington, D.C. Students gain valuable experience with a government agency, nonprofit, or advocacy organization—acquiring vital skills and developing helpful professional networks.
The collaborative program welcomes students from five UC law schools: Berkeley, UCLA, Davis, Irvine, and Hastings. Program Director Nicole Lehtman notes that UCDC is the only setup of its kind, “where students from different law schools come together for an immersive, semester-long experiential program.”
Students who participate may receive 13 units—10 for the externship and three for the companion seminar course, “Law and Lawyering in the Nation’s Capital.” Berkeley Law students make up 40 percent of the 351 students who have completed the program.
Pursuing a legal career in sports, Stacey Ward ’19 externed last year at the Special Olympics Office of General Counsel. She helped the legal department prepare for the 2019 World Games and worked on a partnership with the Beau Biden Foundation to protect youth athletes from abuse.
“My UCDC experience exposed me to lawyers working in all types of legal spheres,” says Ward, who will join Ropes & Gray in San Francisco this fall. “It made me realize there’s no limit to the groups of people that my legal career can reach.”
Lauren Smith ’14 externed at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and parlayed that into a full-time job there after law school. She is now a senior policy counsel at the Future of Privacy Forum—where she supervises a UCDC student.
“Most lawyers in D.C. have varied careers, moving from nonprofit work to government, from policy to law, and back,” Smith says. “I liked the idea of being able to have a diverse career. … I had to pinch myself to believe I was working at the White House on exactly the issues I had focused on in law school. UCDC was absolutely essential to setting me on my post-law school path.”
Renowned judges and practitioners are regularly guest lecturers during the program’s weekly seminar and meet with students, including U.S. Supreme Court justices. Former UCDC students include Colin Allred ’14, recently elected to Congress in Texas and its freshman class co-president.
Lehtman teaches the seminar, often with U.S. Department of Justice Deputy Associate Deputy Attorney General Robyn Thiemann.
“There’s no better way to determine whether government or public service in D.C. is for you than to spend time here experiencing it,” Thiemann says. “And for those students who know that D.C. is where they want to be, a semester here provides the opportunity to meet and network with people who may well later be in their professional orbit. That is truly priceless.”
Students share their life experiences and unique perspectives from their externships. Thiemann calls those group discussions one of the seminar’s most valuable learning components.
“It’s not unusual to see students respectfully challenging and pushing each other to consider alternate viewpoints,” she says. “In each case, something positive comes of it.”
Maritza Perez ’15 externed at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. That led to her becoming a Soros Justice Fellow at the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund in Washington—where she remains and now works as a senior policy analyst at the Center for American Progress.
“I knew I wanted to practice here after law school and I liked that the program offered real work experience and networking opportunities with lawyers working in various capacities in Washington,” Perez says. “I got to work on important issues I’m passionate about and felt like I was making a difference.”
Lehtman, who has led UCDC since 2011, finds it gratifying to see current students enjoying the program and past students reaping the rewards of their experience.
“The best part of my job is the ability to observe firsthand how the UCDC program has a positive impact on students’ law school experience—not only the day-to-day learning through their externships, but also the unique networking opportunities they’re able to enjoy with other students, UC alumni, and leading practitioners,” she says. “The future of the program is incredibly bright and I very much look forward to the years ahead.”
Sam Houshower ’10 was in UCDC’s first class in January 2009, soon after the election of Barack Obama as president. He worked at the U.S. Department of Treasury’s Office of International Affairs—against the backdrop of America’s greatest financial crisis since the Great Depression—on projects such as vaccine financing, constitutional powers, and bank ethics.
“Working alongside very smart, passionate public servants at the front lines of public policy decisions was invigorating and exactly what had sent me to law school—I was hooked,” Houshower says.
The skills and contacts he developed helped secure an internship in the Office of White House Counsel, where he later accepted a permanent position. Houshower now advises Uber’s self-driving vehicles development program as senior counsel for emerging technologies.
“UCDC provides real work experience, a breadth of perspective on how federal policymaking works, and the foundation for a network that can help students find future roles that match their passions,” he says. “For students interested in working in Washington, working on public policy, or just understanding our government better, I can’t recommend the experience highly enough.”