EVERY SO OFTEN, A PIECE OF LEGISLATION COMES ALONG that affects us every day. Health reform is going to affect the lives of every American forever,” says Pranay Vaddi, ’10.
The 25-year-old is describing his part in what’s likely to be viewed as one of the nation’s legislative milestones: the landmark health care reform bill passed by Congress in January. Working in the Capitol Hill office of Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.) during the fall semester of 2009, Vaddi was one of the first students to take advantage of an unusual for-credit program created by the Law School in Washington. A year after that whirlwind experience, he was selected as a Presidential Management Fellow and has landed a two-year appointment as a congressional affairs specialist for the Food and Drug Administration.
It’s too early to call Vaddi’s experience typical. The new program has enrolled just seven students over its first two semesters. Professor Elena Baylis, who runs the program with Associate Dean of Students Kevin Deasy, sees the small-scale program as another example of the School’s commitment to extra attention to its students. But she acknowledges that the Washington externship’s biggest draws are practical experience and connections to the country’s largest concentration of legal talent.
“The market for legal jobs is not growing nationally, but the federal government always needs to hire. D.C. law firms do their head-hunting for people with some kind of government experience, not entry-level hires,” explains Baylis, a former associate with Washington’s Shea and Gardner (now Goodman Proctor). “And during a regular semester, unlike summer, our students are often the only law interns in an office. That makes you a unique character.”
It also makes for a unique program. Only a handful of law schools outside the District, including the University of Michigan, Stanford, and Berkeley, have similar Washington offerings. Pitt’s program will expand over the next several years to accommodate about 15 students.
Vaddi, who had spent a previous summer working in Sen. Casey’s Pittsburgh office, applied for the externship program as soon as it was announced in March 2009. The opportunity on Casey’s staff, where he was the only law student last fall, plunged him into two intense efforts: the first draft of the health insurance reform bill and Casey’s introduction of a bill to extend COBRA health insurance coverage to the long-term unemployed.
Gee-whiz moments? They happened “on a weekly basis. The pace of the office was just so fast,” Vaddi recalls. “In doing research, I noticed two particularly stark cases of constituents who lost their health insurance and lost loved ones as a result. I got their permission for Sen. Casey to use their stories. Then I sprinted to the Capitol and handed my notes to the Senator, just as he walked into a press briefing. It was exactly what I wanted to do since I was in high school. Not bad at all — and without the D.C. program, it would not have happened.”
Marc Coda, ’10, Vaddi’s classmate and Washington housemate, found himself guiding a delegation of Bosnian judges during his externship at the Commercial Law Development Program, a U.S. Agency for International Development-funded program at the Department of Commerce. The office promotes commercial legal reforms in developing and post-conflict countries. Directing his work was an old friend. Katerina Ossenova, ’08, now works on the southern European team of the CLDP, traveling to the region frequently for judicial training projects. She is the the group’s attorney-advisor international.
“When I look back on law school, I remember the practical side,” she says. She honed her skills in a summer internship with the United Nations mission in Kosovo arranged through Pitt Law’s Center for International Legal Education, directed by Professor Ron Brand. Now she has opened doors at her office for Pitt Law students who, like Coda, are earning a certificate of specialized study in international law.
“The Law School has particular strengths in health law, international law, and IP law that are natural fits for work in D.C.,” notes Baylis.
During his semester working with Ossenova, Coda drafted a lengthy report on trade secrets, technology transfer, and the export of agricultural products from Georgia, as well as researching model finance agreements for Iraqi oil field investors. Meanwhile, he investigated the impact of Shari’ah law on the enforcement of arbitration awards in a semester research paper for the weekly seminar in which all externship students enroll.
“We strongly encourage them to write about topics connected to the work they’re doing,” says Dean Deasy. “We very much want the papers to tie into the work they are doing in the field, to blend the academic and practical experience. The three-credit seminar injects a very substantial academic component.” The seminar meets in the University of Pittsburgh Center, an office suite at 20th and M Streets that the Law School shares with Pitt’s Graduate School of Public and International Affairs, and uses the Center’s high-definition video conferencing for remote seminar speakers.
“During a regular semester,
our students are often the only law interns in an office.
That makes you a unique character.”
Pitt’s program offers up to 13 credits to students externing in government and non-profit agencies, with two important provisos. Unlike summer law firm internships, the posts must be unpaid, and students must find their positions on their own. They must also surmount the District’s high cost of living. To address this barrier, the Law School is raising funds so that it can make additional financial aid available to D.C. externs to defray part of their expenses. Coda and Vaddi felt lucky to find a house to sublet with classmates Megan Melcher and Leslie Frey. Of course, the four friends packed their semester with as much pure fun as work.
“We explored the city as much as possible. D.C. offers the big city perspective, with wonderful arts and culture, but neighborhoods, like Pittsburgh,” says Vaddi. “I played on the flag football team with the Casey and Specter staffs in front of the Washington Monument. That was a lot of fun. And the city’s just rotten with pick-up sports leagues,” he laughs. “Kickball is big. And Senate staffers don’t forget you. I keep getting invitations.”
Megan Melcher, ’10, who worked in the juvenile division of the Office of the Attorney General for the District of Columbia, said the four friends opened each other’s eyes to the synergies of public policy, regulation, lobbying, and litigation work in the city. “We’d come home and talk to each other about our positions. We really learned more about networking through each other.”
Pitt Law alumni around the city have offered their help as well. “We’ve been really pleased with their willingness to be involved — we have more than enough guest speakers,” says Dean Deasy. Chip Amoe, ’03, who helped found the D.C. Pitt Law Alumni Chapter in 2007, says the group is establishing a scholarship fund to help future participants afford the program. Amoe, the assistant director of federal affairs for the American Society of Anesthesiologists, is organizing a kickoff event planned for this fall, with formal ongoing fundraising to begin early in 2011. He estimates that over 300 Pitt Law grads live in the metro area.
Katerina Ossenova says her office welcomes more Pitt Law students. “We always have more than enough work. From day one, [students] hit the ground running. It’s a great opportunity to leave the classroom, do international development, and find a great job.”