Annie Chau took part in a summer legal externship that sounds a lot like a television show: Long Beach District Attorney: Homicide Department.
But there’s a bigger story that gets lost among TV’s tense dramatizations of computer-magnified images and experts in lab coats. It doesn’t even get fully told in the law school classroom.
“Our classes teach us the process of discovery – how do you request it, what you cannot request, when you can request – but the classroom doesn’t teach you what kinds of items, documents, papers, and pictures to request,” says Chau, now a third-year student at Gonzaga Law.
“There was a lot of discovery in the criminal homicides I was involved in, and I needed to learn then and there how to quickly choose my discovery requests. Too much and you’ve spent too much of the taxpayer’s money. Too little and you don’t have a case.”
For Chau, the paperwork process wasn’t the only learning experience. There was a human dimension that also proved trying.
“Part of the investigation process requires getting into the private lives of the victims and the defendants,” she says. “You learn private things about people that are private for a reason. You see their texts, home videos, counseling reports. If you’re not careful, it colors your perception of them and creates an undue bias.”
She dealt directly with judges on an almost daily basis, and throughout the three-month externship she was allowed to handle actual cases, defendants, and witnesses. Occasionally she wrote motions to suppress and introduce character evidence and hearsay.
“A lot of us put in a lot of hours during law school. Some of us go without sleep when we have a paper due. But that’s nothing like prepping for trial,” she says, “especially on the eve and when you put together your closing argument.”
Chau says she arrived prepared for the nature and scope of the work, thanks to some helpful advice that supplemented her classroom-acquired knowledge.
“GU alumni gave me a very precise description of what to expect and all the different characters: witnesses, other deputy district attorneys, judges, defendants, public defenders, criminal defense attorneys.
“A good tip and joke my supervising attorney gave me was, ‘Don’t let someone think they have the upper hand, no matter what side you’re on, because the only side that matters is the judge’s side.’”