Law students learn a lot in their classes—but how does all that lofty legal knowledge fit into the “real world”? Enter fieldwork. For Yen Nguyen, a 3L student at New England Law | Boston, her eye-opening fieldwork experience changed the trajectory of her law school experience. And perhaps her future legal career.
In law school, the simple definition of fieldwork is often just the hands-on component of an academic class. Whether it’s volunteering with a legal aid organization, working in a law firm, or interning at a local court, fieldwork provides a critical bridge between the theoretical legal knowledge of the classroom and real-world practice. It also helps law students gain marketable skills, crystalize career goals, and often earn academic credit too. In short, fieldwork is a win-win-win for law students, and Yen Nguyen was determined to take advantage.
“I was persistent,” she says. “I didn't want to give up!”
Nguyen pursued a fieldwork placement at the Eastern Housing Court in Boston as part of her Landlord and Tenant Law class. “It's helpful to do the professional experience while you’re taking the class,” she says.
With help from her “extremely encouraging” Professor Monica Teixeira de Sousa and a senior staff attorney at Greater Boston Legal Services, Alexander Mitchell-Munevar, Nguyen got the gig. For the fall semester of her final year of law school, she found herself in the housing court for five hours each week working with lawyers, landlords, and tenants.
“I feel comfortable there, and they just treat me like one of their own,” Nguyen says. “They don't treat you like a student intern; they try to get you involved with the process, and it’s such a privilege. I feel like I am just working there and part of the team.”
Perhaps it’s not surprising that Nguyen felt so at home in the housing court—three of the sitting judges are New England Law alumni (First Justice MaryLou Muirhead, Associate Justice Maria Theophilis, and First Assistant Clerk Magistrate JoeAnn Smith). “It’s very exciting to be in that environment, knowing there are already people from the school that are making a difference out there,” she says.
If you want to know what her typical day was like, well…there is no neat and tidy answer. But one thing’s for sure: they kept her busy. “You’re literally just on your feet,” Nguyen says. “Whatever was happening that day, I was just lucky to be able to be involved, whether it was mediation, observing the trial, or helping with the file, the cases, or doing legal research.” She also had to submit a weekly journal for her Landlord and Tenant Law class, which helped her reflect on what she was learning and the connections between her fieldwork and coursework.
Nguyen worked on Thursdays, which happened to be the day they processed evictions at the courthouse. “[I was] talking to the office personnel about what happened during the process of evictions and then seeing with my own eyes the stress,” she says. “It's a very emotionally charged environment, so I definitely have a different perspective from day one.” The theoretical situations she was learning about in class suddenly became real, she says, from seeing the relief on peoples’ faces as they avoided eviction to their tears when they could not.
Nguyen was on the frontlines of the housing court’s day-to-day operations. “The day goes fast. There are a lot of people. We're always busy,” she says. “But when it's quiet I try to go up to the courthouse to observe, and that’s how I connect the real issues to what I've learned in class.”
Those courtroom observations were some of her favorite memories from her fieldwork experience, she says. She enjoyed simply listening to and learning from the judges’ comments during or in between the trials. There even was value in just observing attorneys talking to their clients in the hallway, she says. “I get to see litigants often being represented by attorneys and how that is very different than pro se litigants.”
Like many law students, Nguyen is still trying to figure out what she wants to do with her law career. She came to New England Law as an evening student wanting to practice intellectual property; now she’s a full-time student exploring her options.
After her fieldwork experience with the housing court, she says she can see herself doing landlord-tenant law—or something else. “I want to keep an open mind,” she says. “I have at least ten more classes to go, and who knows where the road might take me!”
Nguyen still wants to intern in an IP law environment before graduating, so she can experience the day-to-day work. (She is also working to graduate a semester early, because she wants to get into the real world faster!) But even though IP law is still calling to her, her fieldwork experience has left an indelible mark on her career. “I am keeping landlord-tenant law in mind, because I now see the reality of the practice,” she says.
Nguyen went to Bentley University for undergrad, studying management and marketing. She also earned a certificate in fashion design and worked with 3-D printing technology, which ultimately inspired her to go to law school for intellectual property law.
After her first year of law school, she worked as a Summer Fellow with the local Arts and Business Council’s Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts program, which tied into her interest in fashion design and IP law.
“I’m grateful that I had those opportunities while I’m still a student,” she says. “Being in the classroom is great, and the professors are wonderful…but until you get out there, you can’t see both sides of the story. The experience is invaluable.”
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