A law intern's proving ground

Posted: May 7, 2014 - 5:31pm | Y-12 Report | Volume 10, Issue 2 | 2014

Eliza Scott almost didn’t apply for the Y‑12/UT Law School Field Placement Program. As a second-year law student at the University of Tennessee, she figured she was a long shot to land the highly competitive internship.

“I really wanted to work at Y‑12,” Scott admitted. “I was excited when I got the interview, but then it was like waiting on pins and needles.”

It was worth the anxiety, as she recently became the program’s newest participant. Now starting its third year, this unique collaboration gives students at the UT College of Law a rare look into the contractual, commercialization and compliance activities that take place at a high-security nuclear site like Y‑12. Having an engineering background and prior experience with the Department of Energy in Oak Ridge made Scott an ideal candidate. She will work at Y‑12 part time this semester and possibly full time in the summer.

Chuck Young, a B&W Y‑12 lawyer who graduated from UT Law and moonlights there as an adjunct professor, was familiar with the quality of students UT could offer. “We’ve run this program for two years now, and both years we’ve had excellent-quality students who’ve done great work,” he said. “UT is giving us students we can plug right in and benefit from quickly.”

The students often work with B&W Y‑12’s intellectual property attorney, helping navigate the complex patent process. “B&W Y‑12 does not normally apply for a patent on one of our inventions, an expensive process, unless we believe that we can get a patent and that we can license it to a business that will take the invention to market,” explained Mike Renner, contracts and intellectual property attorney. “Our interns have done extensive research on various aspects of patent law to bolster our arguments during patent prosecution that our inventions are, indeed, patentable.”

Interns have worked on pre-litigation document reviews and provided important legal research in cases ranging from routine contract and employment disputes to complex litigation with millions of dollars’ worth of claims at stake. The breadth of exposure, according to Young, is comparable to what a student might gain while working for a large full-service law firm.

While a student might gain valuable experience interning at any number of places, Y‑12 offers meaningful work and exposure to things students might not otherwise experience, Young said. “They’re getting insight into government customers and relationships, exposure to our technologies and developments, and an opportunity to contribute to our national security mission, which is clearly distinct from the missions of most companies,” he noted.

The program also helps UT recruit top law students. “Quite frankly, this gives us bragging rights,” said George Kuney, director of UT’s Clayton Center for Entrepreneurial Law. “We’re a small law school, so the opportunity to interface with large, important federal institutions is extremely important to our students.

“They often operate with a mythic view of what it means to be a lawyer,” Kuney continued. “This program gives them some real experience and context. We can’t simulate this, and I can’t think of anything better for a student interested in this type of legal work.”

Neither can Scott. “Coming back to DOE feels like coming home to me,” she said. “I’ve received a lot from Oak Ridge — knowledge, wisdom, responsibility — that I couldn’t have gotten anywhere else. I’m absolutely delighted to be here.”