Bonneville Power Administration harnesses law student energy

Third-year UO law students Donovan Bonner (left) and Brent Sutten

Third-year law students Donovan Bonner and Brent Sutten hadn’t planned on moving to Portland for their final year of law school, but an exciting new opportunity to participate in a year-long paid internship at Bonneville Power Administration caught their eyes and changed their plans.

In the past, students at the University of Oregon School of Law typically kept their Portland-based work to a semester or summer at a time in order to fulfill their graduation course requirements through classes in Eugene. Then last fall, the law school added the option for students to take classes in Portland by opening a full-time, Portland-based program for students in their final year of law school.

With the increased access to the law school’s Portland-based students, the BPA awarded a five-year renewable contract to UO Law, funding year-long legal internship positions that are full time during the summer and part time during the school year. Bonner and Sutten are the first UO Law students to work in the paid internship, joining other students from Lewis & Clark Law School.

The law clerks provide legal research and writing services for attorneys in the BPA Office of General Counsel. Their work exposes them to legal matters across the BPA’s four legal divisions, including power, transmission, natural resources and general matters.

“At BPA, law clerks get to participate in many aspects of our legal practice. The attorneys in our office really rely on the law clerks for quality legal research and analysis,” said Hilary Browning-Craig, BPA attorney and coordinator of the clerk program.  “In addition to traditional research and memo-writing projects, clerks may attend depositions, contribute to motions or meet with program office staff.  The yearlong clerkship really allows the students to develop expertise in BPA’s legal issues and facilitates work on longer-term projects than a semester-long clerkship.”

The BPA is a federal agency within the U.S. Department of Energy that markets power from 31 federal hydro projects in the Columbia River Basin and other non-federal power plants. It operates and maintains the majority of the high-voltage transmission lines in the Pacific Northwest.

“There are currently eight law clerks at BPA, and we each have specific interests,” said Bonner, who came to UO Law from California to study sports and business law. “New projects get sent to the group, and we decide who takes it based on topic and workload.”

Sutten, who came from Maryland for the school’s nationally recognized Environmental Law Program, spent the summer at the BPA working on projects primarily related to natural resources, land-use and tribal law. Bonner decided he wanted more experience in business law and has been working on the corporate side in areas such as employment and contracts.

“There’s a lot of work, but from a student perspective it is a great opportunity to get feedback on your writing,” Sutten said of his work at the BPA. “Everyone is approachable and are good about meeting with you. We have access to a ton of resources and are developing our writing skills.”

Bonner agrees, noting that his supervisors at the BPA “regularly check in with us to give extended feedback on what we write and work on.”

The two students have now transitioned from their 40-hours-a-week summer workload to working part time while taking classes at the new UO Law Portland Program.

“These internships at BPA are a terrific example of what makes the law school’s Portland program so compelling for our students,” said Mohsen Manesh, associate law professor and faculty director for the Portland program. “The opportunities to develop practice skills and professional relationships as well as the access to mentorship and networking events all contribute to make the law school’s Portland program a true bridge to practice.”

With the hope of starting their professional law careers in a year, both are also focused on the networking and mentorship opportunities in Portland. As part of the law school’s Portland program, each Portland law student is paired with a local UO Law alumnus or alumna who serves as the student’s mentor for the academic year.

“I think the mentorship is awesome. Having that person to talk to or network with is really important,” Bonner said.

Sutten wants to practice law in Oregon and sees his final school year as a way to form connections in the legal community.

“One of the nice things about this experience is it allows you to branch out and meet people who are using their law degrees in non-traditional ways. They have a career that uses their J.D., but not necessarily as a practicing attorney,” he said. “Being where you want to practice and meeting people there is always really practical.”

“Donovan and Brent have been a fantastic addition to our law clerk pool,” Browning-Craig said. “We are very excited to have established this opportunity with UO Law and look forward to continuing the program.”

By Heidi Hiaasen, University Communications