An Elon Law residency-in-practice supervised by Judge Catherine Eagles offered Jessica Leach L’21 an opportunity to hone legal research skills as she developed knowledge of compassionate release processes for prison inmates and of a federal anti-discrimination law.
This is the third in a series of occasional stories on residency-in-practice experiences for Elon Law students in the Class of 2021.
It used to be that federal inmates who sought a reduction in their sentences due to age, medical conditions, or other extraordinary and compelling circumstances, would begin the process by asking the Bureau of Prisons to petition a judge on their behalf.
For many inmates, however, there was a recurring problem: overworked wardens or bureau officials often declined or failed to fully review the prisoners’ requests. This left nonviolent offenders, often in old age or suffering from chronic or terminal health concerns, without a way to secure a compassionate release.
That changed when President Donald Trump signed the First Step Act of 2018, which allowed prisoners to directly petition the courts for early release if they could show that they had tried and failed to get the Bureau of Prisons to do so first.
If you’re working for a United States District Court judge who receives these petitions from federal inmates, it’s a sure bet your assignments might include researching published appellate cases, analyzing individual requests, and drafting responses.
And Jessica Leach L’21 is thankful for the opportunity to do exactly that as part of her Elon Law residency-in-practice with the Hon. Catherine Eagles of the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of North Carolina.
“I’d never heard of compassionate release motions or sentence reductions,” Leach said of her 2021 Winter Trimester experience with a federal court located in downtown Greensboro. “The First Step Act was passed in part to give inmates more rights and to allow inmates to advocate for themselves since the prison system wasn’t.”
Elon Law’s Residency-in-Practice Program is the only one of its kind in American legal education. Students earn academic credit by working full-time under the supervision of a judge or attorney during the winter or spring of their second year.
The experience is grounded in a learning plan that students develop with their supervisors and a professor to increase proficiency in at least two legal skills and in an area of law practice.
Researching compassionate release claims and reviewing published appellate court decisions and instructions was the first task Leach was assigned in her residency. Her responsibilities quickly grew, including research of the way a certain anti-discrimination statute should be applied in a lawsuit before the court.
The COVID-19 pandemic required Leach to conduct almost all of her residency assignments remotely. That didn’t keep her from collaborating with law clerks and the judge as circumstances required, or from attending court proceedings that were held via teleconference. Leach said the legal writing, research, and analysis on its own proved especially beneficial.
A UNC-Chapel Hill graduate and former paralegal who previously worked for both Disney and the National World War II Museum in New Orleans, Leach enrolled at Elon Law initially set on estate planning and elder law. Since working last summer in the North Carolina Supreme Court, then learning from Eagles in an Elon Law residency, her interest has shifted toward tax law.
“That’s what makes judicial residency placements such a valuable experience,” said Leach, who will continue her experiential learning this summer as a legal intern with the IRS. “Judicial internships are just known to be great, especially if you don’t know what area of law you want to practice. These internships allow you to get your hands on a lot of different things and they are often an amazing experience.
“And one of their biggest benefits? They help your research and writing skills because that’s what you’re doing. You’re not advocating for clients – the court doesn’t have clients! You’re simply learning how to interpret the law and how to apply it.”