More than 200 law students have worked with judges on range of tasks since program was launched in 2015.
Lawyer Xu Fenfen encountered her first criminal case involving a fatality when she was an intern at China's top court last year.
A master's student with Zhejiang University at the time, she was among some 40 people selected for internships at the Supreme People's Court from February to August. She said she was grateful for the opportunity, and the six months she spent there showed her the importance of helping people.
Xu spent her internship working for the court's Trial Supervision Tribunal, mainly helping judges deal with matters such as taking notes at meetings and writing reports after reviewing cases.
The tribunal specializes in reviewing influential cases with complicated facts or those in which inmates serving suspended death sentences commit further crimes while in custody.
"At the beginning, I was too frightened to turn to the next page when I saw photos of the body in material to do with the case," the 25-year-old lawyer said. "I was timid, but I had to read, because my tutor judge asked me to comment after the review."
Xu said being an intern had been more challenging than she had imagined. "The internship was not an easy job that could be idled away," she said.
The Supreme People's Court began the internship program in July 2015 to increase communication and cooperation between courts and law schools, which the central leadership had called for two years earlier, and to cultivate legal talent.
More than 200 interns have worked at the top court since then.
The court says interns should be recommended by universities or colleges, and work with judges in handling civil, criminal, administrative and State compensation cases. The time they spend as interns ranges from three to six months.
Hu Shihao, head of the court's department for judicial reforms, said jobs were classified according to students' interests and could improve their ability to solve legal problems.
Where dreams begin
Xu, who became an intern on Feb 14, 2017, said she did not know why she had to view photos of the body when reviewing the case, as she had already studied the autopsy report.
"But my tutor judge told me to be prudent and to compare the injuries in the pictures with those in the report to double check whether they were the same, as it was a case involving a death," Xu remembered.
"Since then, the need to be precise and cautious when reviewing criminal cases has been highlighted in my mind."
After handling several similar cases, she was no longer afraid of seeing such photos and could calmly analyze them with colleagues.
Xu said she became addicted to criminal law after discovering that a crime could influence a suspect's life, and even change it completely. "I wanted to use my legal knowledge to save the innocent and also to push forward the rule of law in our country," she said.
To pursue that dream, Xu moved to Beijing after graduation and is now a criminal lawyer at a law firm in the capital.
Power of example
Sun Liang was a postgraduate law student at Beijing's Tsinghua University when he served as an intern at the court's No 1 Criminal Tribunal from October 2015 to March 2016.
He helped judges collect case materials, research criminal topics and write reports on whether death penalties handed down by lower courts should be approved. He said the experience was unforgettable.
Now 29, he works as a judicial assistant at Beijing Tongzhou District People's Court. Sun said he decided to begin his career by working at the low-level court due to the influence of Ran Rong, a judge at the tribunal.
"It was Ran who let me know the importance of the rule of law, telling me it should be fulfilled step by step," he said, adding the judge never complained about her workload and taught him not to take small matters for granted.
At the beginning of his internship, for example, he often replied "no comment" when he received a case or project he was unfamiliar with. "But the judge told me I should give an answer after searching for information about the new aspects, as it was not only the work attitude, but also a chance to fill my knowledge gap," he said.
He had also complained early on about spelling mistakes made by court clerks. "But after I was asked to record the information of a case hearing, I realized it was too hard to ensure everything was accurate," Sun said. "Going through the notes and correcting mistakes after the trial is a must, no matter what they are."
Such matters might appear insignificant, but Ran always took them seriously, teaching Sun to respect each task and learn from them. When he finished his internship, she shared three tips with him: have a dream, work hard, and be a better man.
Although Sun is kept busy by the rising number of cases handled by the district court, he said he could shoulder the burden because it was something he had learned from Ran.
Further to go
Yuan Gang, an associate law professor at China University of Political Science and Law, welcomed the top court's internship program, saying it reduced the distance between law schools and the judicial authorities, helped students put their knowledge into practice and improved the cultivation of legal talent.
He said the United States, some European countries and Japan placed a great deal of emphasis on combining legal education with practice. In Germany and France, for example, law students can only qualify as lawyers if they spent at least two years as interns at judicial or administrative organs or law firms, Yuan said.
In Japan, law students who wanted to work in field were asked to complete a one-year internship at an institute established by the country's highest court, he added.
Zou Jiaming, a criminal lawyer at King and Capital Law Firm in Beijing, said: "Practice is essential for law school students. Many law graduates don't know how to communicate with judges and how to question their litigants, although they perform well in schools. "Graduation doesn't mean they can be competent at legal jobs."
Yuan suggested the top court specify projects for interns, with tasks given to postgraduate students different from those given to undergraduates.
Sun said developing a long-term relationship with former interns could boost the effectiveness of study and help solve legal problems thoroughly. "If the top court could follow our growth and receive our feedback after we leave there, I think it will help improve the internship program," he said.
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