Partnership with Dillard University Brings Brookhaven Lab's First Legal Office Intern
September 23, 2022
Dillard University's Mock Trial Nationals Team (From L to R): Judge Kern Reese (coach), Adria Kimbrough (head attorney coach), Ahjenea White, Amaya Ronczyk, Taylor Ponds, Lajeanne Shelton, Leonard Brown, DeAndré K. Bell II, Aubri Magee, Alicia Frison (attorney coach), Reneé Simien, Sterlling Bond, Caitlin Douglas, James Hoeffgen (attorney coach).
In late spring of 2022, The U.S. Department of Energy’s Brookhaven National Laboratory and Dillard University signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU), creating summer internship opportunities for students and research opportunities for faculty. A key piece of the MoU was initiating an internship program within the Lab’s legal department, enabling pre-law students to obtain experience with government contracts, procurement, intellectual property, and more.
“An MoU documents the building of a relationship, but the exciting part is how the relationship develops,” explained Anne Troutman, general counsel at Brookhaven Lab. “I am extremely fortunate to have the opportunity to champion the Lab’s relationship with Dillard.”
Brookhaven Lab’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Office helped facilitate this MoU, with staff from both Dillard and the Lab championing it over the past couple of years, even through some of the limitations posed by the pandemic.
“We’ve taken the time to outline the framework for a strong relationship that reflects our values as an institution and will benefit students, faculty, and Laboratory staff,” said Noel Blackburn, Chief Diversity Officer at Brookhaven Laboratory.
“This partnership is a great opportunity,” Dante Butler, pre-law director at Dillard University, remarked. “It exposes students to different scenarios and puts a spotlight on the kind of work that happens at the Lab.”
Ahjenea White, a senior at Dillard University, became the first student to intern within Brookhaven Lab’s legal department. Mentored by Troutman, White explored what a career in law might look like through the lens of a national laboratory, applying her legal expertise to several projects.
“The work was very hands-on. For example, Anne asked me to look over procurement documentation and give her my own legal opinion on certain aspects of it. I really enjoyed that part of the internship and found it very interesting,” recalled White.
“Our pilot internship was to introduce Ahjenea to how the legal department supports the Lab,” explained Troutman. “She was outstanding in her enthusiasm, perspective, and contributions. Working with Ahjenea has been an enriching experience for me as well, and I look forward to the next opportunity to work with Mr. Butler, her prelaw advisor, on future projects.”
Even with a focus on procurement and government contracts, during this internship White was able to venture into other facets of law that interested her, including budding fields with growing impact, like environmental justice. Encouraging students to explore a field in a hands-on way—like through an internship—provides a window into what a career could look like for them. It can help map out a clearer path to that career or even steer them into a completely different trajectory and inspire new interests and pursuits.
“Right now, I’m trying to explore what I want to do. I’m trying to figure out what my purpose is,” said White. “I’ve recognized that it’s law, but there are so many focused areas within it. I’ve been meeting with people in several fields, and this internship seemed like a great way to experience policy and regulations.”
Growing up, friends and family would tell White that she had a knack for debate. They would remark that her persuasive arguments would make her an excellent lawyer. Deciding to pursue these skills further, she earned a leadership role within her high school’s mock trial team, an activity she carried into college as well. Despite developing a keen interest in law and the legal system, she wasn’t sure if it was truly her passion or her calling until her senior year, when she worked for a local district attorney during a case that shook not only the local community, but the entire country.
“I saw a crowd of people that were picketing in front of the office,” White recalled, “but I didn't really know why. At the time, I wasn’t as focused on local current events, but seeing this, I needed to know what was happening. I found out that this started in response to a young, unarmed, black man named Stephon Clark, who was shot by police officers in the backyard of his grandmother's house. This experience had a significant impact on me. I realized that I was working in this place, in this field, without fully knowing my community and the issues it faced.”
Finding what area of the law to focus on is only one challenge the future holds, though. Fields like law can be overwhelmingly lacking in diversity. Per the American Bar Association’s 2020 Profile of the Legal Profession, in 2020, 86 percent of all lawyers were non-Hispanic whites. Only 37 percent, less than half of the legal community, is comprised of women. And only 5 percent of lawyers are African American.
“How do you change that dynamic?” asked Butler. “If you want to diversify your field, you need to diversify your circle, invite new people in. That’s what we’re doing. We’re diversifying the legal field one student at a time.”
Given the success of this pilot program, Butler expects the future will bring more students exploring more fields within the Lab. Together, Dillard and Brookhaven hope to impact many fields by the new circles of eager students they are putting together.
“I'm very nervous and excited about the future. Going to an HBCU [Historically Black College/University], I am surrounded by people that look like me, but I realize that’s not always going to be the case in every professional environment,” said White. “So, I'm just trying to figure out how to maintain balance. I want to function comfortably in that type of environment and still stay connected to myself and my culture.”
Brookhaven National Laboratory is supported by the Office of Science of the U.S. Department of Energy. The Office of Science is the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States and is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, please visit science.energy.gov.
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