UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. – Second-year law students Emilee Kula and Daijah Blackburn represented Penn State Law in University Park at the 23rd Annual Judicial Clerkship Program held at the American Bar Association (ABA) midyear meeting in New Orleans on February 2-4.
The Judicial Clerkship Program connects law students who have diverse backgrounds with judges and law clerks. Over the three-day program, law students examine legal issues, research, prepare briefs, and defend their work to fellow participants and judges. Kula and Blackburn met with Judge Toni Clarke, a Penn State alumna and former athlete on the Lady Lions basketball team.
“Meeting Judge Toni Clarke reaffirmed the power of comradery within the Penn State student and alumni networks. She sought Emilee and [me] out and yelled ‘WE ARE’ when she found me. Meeting her was amazing and I am grateful to have connected with her. As a retired judge and a current mediator, she embodies the type of lawyer I strive to become,” said Blackburn.
“Judge Clarke was so friendly and quite possibly bleeds blue and white,” said Kula. “My first meeting with Judge Clarke came after I told another judge I attended Penn State and they told me that Judge Clarke was the woman to know. She came over and introduced herself, telling me that she HAD to meet her Penn Staters. It was a true testament to the Penn State Alumni network and how there are connections everywhere. Judge Clarke gave insightful advice and encouraged us to apply for clerkships. She also told us to check out a basketball game, so I will be heading to the Bryce Jordan Center in her honor.”
Kula is the president of the Corporate Law Society, the notarius of Phi Delta Phi, and is chair of the Community Involvement Committee. Blackburn is the co-chair of the Criminal Justice Reform Conference of the Criminal Law Society, vice president of the Black Law Students Association, and is a member of the mock trial team. To enter the selection process, Kula and Blackburn had to submit a personal statement about their passion for diversity, interest in clerking, and how they would represent Penn State Law. Blackburn also discussed how a lack of diversity affects the current state of the American judiciary.
Kula said, “Representing Penn State Law at the JCP was an incredible experience. To start, Penn State is a massive, nationally recognized school so anytime I mention I am a student at Penn State, people are always curious. Penn State Law also prepared me to represent them because of its commitment to diversity. There were many students, judges, and ABA leaders who mentioned that they had not been in a room with so much diversity in a long time (or ever). During my time at Penn State Law, I have been surrounded by diverse people, religions, cultures, and ideas. Due to the diverse environment at Penn State Law, I felt comfortable with going into a diverse environment, ready to learn.”
Dr. Wende’ Ferguson, assistant dean for student services said, “We’re proud of Emilee and Daijah for representing Penn State Law on a national level. We’re proud to see how their legal education here has benefited them to feel prepared to participate and learn as much as they could in this program.”
Both Blackburn and Kula sat in on an oral argument at the Louisiana Court of Appeals, where they saw how the attorneys advocated for their client and the process of how judges asked questions and led the proceedings. They also attended an awards ceremony for federal judges at the Eastern District of Louisiana Courthouse.
Blackburn said, “It was a pleasure and an honor to represent Penn State Law at the ABA Judicial Clerkship program. This was a very rich experience, and I took away more than I can explain in words. I learned the power of stepping outside of my comfort zone to interact with judges, lawyers, law students, and other professionals from all over the country.”
Kula spoke about how she learned there wasn’t a perfect path in a law career. “We were reminded that the legal profession needs diversity, now more than ever. Not counting yourself out means applying to a job, even if you think there is no chance you will get it. Submit the application and if you don’t get it—try again.” She also talked about hearing a judge’s story about how his best opportunities and learning moments came after he had made a mistake. “For a law student, this advice is so comforting. As we go into the profession mistakes are inevitable so learning from the journey is key,” she said.
Blackburn said, “I learned how following my own path, strengths, and convictions will always lead me to where I belong. I belonged in New Orleans that week. I got to see professionals (especially Black women) in the spaces where I hope to walk and sit, and I met other amazing law students in the process. I left the JCP encouraged and enlightened to say the least.”
After the experience, Kula said she will consider clerking in her future. “The benefits of a clerkship are invaluable. You have the opportunity to work in multiple areas of the law, expand on research and writing skills, and impact people’s lives,” she said.