John “Jack” Ottenwess was a 3L when he externed with the National Council on Disability. Headquartered in Washington, DC, the NCD is an independent agency of the U.S. Government that advises on disability policy for all levels of government and for private-sector entities. Jack worked remotely with the General Counsel’s Office located in Washington.
Externship Program: Working for a government advisory agency is a unique experience that might appeal to lot of UIC Law students. Can you give us a sense of what type of work, what projects, you worked on?
Jack Ottenwess: The National Council on Disability is an advisory agency, so naturally my work was supported agency’s policy work in that area. But to give you a few specific examples, I researched state-by-state proposed and passed legislation related to restrictive voting laws, as well as legislation relating to what defines “employment” and how it specifically relates to disabled employees in training environments. I also compiled research and reports on the relationship between organ transplants and patients with disabilities and gathered federal agency reports on how patients with disabilities are disparately impacted by access to medical services.
EP: Sounds like you really put your research skills to work! Were there other skills you developed further throughout your externship?
Ottenwess: Yeah, I did a lot of research, on an extraordinarily broad level. It was critical to be able to find materials from several sources/archives. I also really refined my ability to read (and understand) federal and state legislation/statutes. It really shifted my mindset to read from the perspective of how laws are practically implemented versus just what the plain language of the bill reads. Reading legislation and statutes in a real-world context makes a big difference.
EP: What was your relationship with your supervisor like? Did they help you develop any specific skills?
Ottenwess: My supervisor was terrific. She held me to a high standard and spoke to me like a colleague, versus a temporary assistant, which made a difference. At the same time, she emphasized she was always willing to answer questions or address difficulties I would encounter. That balance helped me to work effectively and confidently on my own and keep pace with the work at NCD. A couple projects I received needed to be done the day before I got them. Working effectively and keeping an open line of communication with my supervisor helped everyone stay on the same page.
BP: Do you think your externship has influenced your path in legal practice?
Ottenwess: Certainly. I think any legal work experience will have an impact on your thoughts or plans. I didn’t have any previous experience in disability law, but working for NCD was terrific. I’m probably not going to pursue the field immediately after graduation, but that’s mostly because of experience level. I just do not have enough experience to excel quickly or to make me a robust advocate. But having an externship experience like this gets you to think about things you hadn’t considered. I’m sure I’ll be thinking about these types of opportunities down the road, and how I can be valuable. I would like to be involved in a less official capacity whenever I can.
EP: On the whole, what about the externship meant the most? Were there any big surprises?
Ottenwess: What meant the most? Being involved with a federal agency that is dedicated to changing people’s lives for the better. The projects had clear goals, and NCD generally knows what specific things need to be done to achieve those impacts. Also being exposed to how different agencies in the federal government interact and rely on each other’s information was really interesting. The decisions of other agencies do not always make the most sense, and being able to express an opinion in an official capacity was a new and nuanced kind of dispute resolution for me to learn.
EP: One last question: What advice would you give to others students who want to pursue what you experienced?
Ottenwess: Jump in, with both feet. Everyone at NCD was great—incredibly knowledgeable and genuinely kind. As advocates, they want you to succeed. If you work for a government agency, be sure to talk to as many people as possible. Everyone has an interesting journey and role, and you can gain a lot from those relationships. Even though my position was remote, it never felt like I was on the outside looking in. My closest co-workers were always only a call or email away whenever I needed of assistance.
As for the work, break down the large tasks into smaller bites. The idea of researching every state’s laws can be overwhelming, but it is not unmanageable by any means. Most legislation tends to use the same type of language. Recognizing those similarities makes the reading easier, but there is also a great support system at NCD to help.
Lastly, enjoy yourself. The work can be challenging, but it is rewarding. It’s rewarding to know you are contributing to important work, to helping the disabled community. And finishing lengthy research projects is very rewarding on a personal level. Don’t take yourself too seriously, but give every project your full effort.