By Caitlin VanOverberghe, Greenfield Daily Reporter
GREENFIELD — Judge Dan Marshall’s courtroom in the Hancock County Courthouse is an ornate and quiet place, like a church or an old library.
The courtroom is a place where lessons in right and wrong find their conclusion; a place of practice; a place of learning. All except the judge himself talk in hushed tones. They flip through books and papers, ask questions and seek answers.
On several mornings during the week, Shelby Thornburg can be found here, seated at a little table on the far side of the courtroom, passing folders between stacks and watching closely as an attorney with the Hancock County prosecutor’s office handles a case.
Thornburg is not a lawyer but a student. She is one of two externs from the Indiana University Robert H. McKinney School of Law who recently were chosen to work for the prosecutor’s office for no pay, saving Hancock County taxpayers up to $20,000 a year.
It’s not the most glamorous gig in the world, working for free, but Thornburg, a Greenfield-Central High School graduate, is happy to be back in the town where she first decided to become an attorney.
“It’s a lot better than just getting up and going to class,” she said.
Newly elected Hancock County Prosecutor Brent Eaton said talks of creating a program for law students started while he was transitioning into the office in January. He began looking into the prosecutor’s budget and saw there was more than $20,000 set aside for hiring part-time positions for help with larger cases.
Rather than looking to fill those positions, he contacted the IU law school to arrange a partnership where students would work in exchange for the experience.
“It came down to either being more challenged from a manpower perspective or finding more money to hire a deputy prosecutor,” he said. “We probably could have found more money in the budget to hire more help, but we figured we could save the taxpayers some money.”
So, two students, Thornburg and Anderson native Luke Purdy, were interviewed and chosen to pilot the program in Hancock County.
They each work two days a week, roughly 15 hours each, filing paperwork and researching cases out of a closet-sized room their boss jokingly admitted “was not being utilized in quite the same way before.”
They’re at Eaton’s side in the courtroom, as well, getting real experience handling and assisting with litigation.
Because they are both certified legal interns, they can do anything in the courtroom that a lawyer can as long as they are supervised by a licensed attorney.
Since the prosecutor’s office handles so many different types of cases each day, Eaton said the practice these students are receiving is essential to helping them form a well-rounded legal mind.
Their mornings could start off by handling simple traffic tickets and quickly shift to bringing charges against an alleged felon in the afternoon.
“Our office is small enough that there are a lot of opportunities available. The hope is that they will have a variety of real work experiences while working here,” Eaton said.
And the benefits go both ways.
“They have been tremendously helpful to us,” Eaton said.
While IU McKinney does not require its students to complete such programs before graduation, it is strongly encouraged, Purdy said, as a way to apply the theories taught in class.
“Watching a case translate from paper to reality is really interesting,” he said.
Purdy is in his third year of law school at IU and will receive three credits for the 150 hours of work he will complete with Eaton’s office this semester.
Purdy said he decided to become a lawyer because he has always been interested in human rights. In fact, he was drawn to Hancock County by Eaton’s new victim advocate program and has been gaining good experience working for that area of the office.
He graduates this spring with a special certificate in international law and plans to take the bar exam soon afterward.
Thornburg’s work in Hancock County will count toward a pro-bono program offered at IU McKinney that places students in the legal departments of nonprofit or government agencies. Students involved in this type of program work toward a recognition level rather than to earn credit hours.
Although she is only in her second year as a law student and won’t take the bar exam until July 2016, Thornburg said she hopes her career will land her in a prosecutor’s office in Central Indiana, even Hancock County if the chance presented itself.
“I’m definitely not opposed to that idea,” she said with a laugh.