Fellowship Spotlight: Mitchell Kohles

May 25, 2022

The Cleary Gottlieb Fellowship Program places associates at legal services or nonprofit organizations for one year, providing critically needed legal work to underserved communities.

Mitchell Kohles, a current Fellow at Brooklyn Defender Services (BDS), shares some of his thoughts about the experience thus far.

Why did you choose to join Cleary initially?

Before law school, I worked at a boutique law firm in New York City. The attorneys there not only helped me prepare for law school, but continued to offer career advice while I was studying. One attorney spoke very highly of Cleary—specifically, its investigations practice, which helped set Cleary apart from other firms I considered.

Cleary is outspoken about its commitment to pro bono, rewarding attorneys equally for spending time on matters billable and pro bono alike. I also liked that the firm partnered with nonprofit legal services organizations to support causes important to me, particularly immigration issues.

When I interviewed, the Cleary attorneys I spoke with reinforced many of the positive aspects of the firm, but also showed a lot of personality. Our conversations ranged from interesting technical legal issues to the trivial aspects of work and life in New York. Overall, I felt a genuine openness and intellectual curiosity among the people I met that made me look forward to spending time with others in the office.

What drew you to the Cleary Gottlieb Fellowship Program?

During my summer internship, I met with a couple of attorneys—Kayla Rooney and Meghan Liu—who were planning to serve as Fellows in the fall of 2020. They were both looking forward to the chance to build on their existing pro bono practice within Cleary. Although I did not have that background at the firm, I had been involved in immigration defense in a variety of ways during law school (a class, an externship, a teaching assistant position, and a pro bono “caravan” during spring break). I wanted to continue to learn about that area of the law and put those skills into practice. There is also a great (and growing) community of immigration practitioners in New York City, and I knew the fellowship would give me time to build those relationships.

Can you provide an overview of the type of work you are doing at Brooklyn Defender Services (BDS)?

I work in the New York Immigrant Family Unity Project (NYIFUP) practice, one of the immigration groups at BDS. NYIFUP represents individuals charged by Immigration & Customs Enforcement as removable and placed in detention during their removal proceedings. Most of my work involves representing BDS clients at an appellate level. If our clients lose (or win) their case at the trial level before an immigration judge, I challenge (or defend) that ruling at the Board of Immigration Appeals. In some cases, we take that challenge to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. I also prepare motions in immigration court and, because our clients begin their cases in detention, habeas petitions in the federal courts to secure their release on bond.

More recently, I represented a client at the trial level by preparing evidence and testimony for their application for relief from removal.

What has surprised you most about the fellowship?

Before starting at BDS, I had not appreciated how crucial it is to negotiate with opposing government counsel to try and resolve our clients’ cases out-of-court. The energy we expend trying to present a case to opposing counsel is immense and unfortunately may not yield a result or even a response, which is frustrating. 

Also, the length of removal proceedings means that clients inevitably have real-life needs other than just fighting their immigration case. Talking with clients and learning about those needs has helped me better understand what they go through during proceedings. Often, those real-life needs, like getting work authorization, are key to ultimately getting a good outcome in the client’s case.

What kinds of challenges have you faced during your fellowship?

I found preparing a client for in-court testimony incredibly challenging. Not only are we discussing some of the most emotionally charged aspects of their life, but we are trying to anticipate cross-examination by the government on those same topics.

Given the complexity of immigration law, it can also be difficult to help clients (and their families) understand the nature of their case. The procedural postures are complicated because there may be multiple agencies involved that all could have an impact on relief. The lingering fear of removal is a constant weight on everyone, no matter the stage of the case.

What skills have your learned at BDS that have served you well?

Exercising storytelling skills has been an exciting and satisfying part of my work at BDS. Most of my work is appellate, and there is less room for creativity there (and a large need for research).

However, when you are still learning about the client and gathering evidence at the trial level, there is lot of space to craft a narrative about the client and why their situation meets whatever standard you are pursuing. I am grateful to my colleagues at BDS for teaching me how to craft those stories.

I have also appreciated collaborating with attorneys and other staff on large cases and figuring out how to prioritize important issues.

What advice do you have for a First Year Cleary Associate who may want to pursue a similar path? 

Ask for the work you want! Hopefully, that work includes practicing unfamiliar skills and learning about new subject matters because that is how you will get the most learning out of the experience.

What are you looking forward to most upon your arrival at Cleary?

I am eager to dive into new areas of law and apply the skills I have learned at BDS to different situations at the firm. I also very much hope to continue working with BDS and its deserving clients.

Learn more about the Cleary Gottlieb Fellowship Program here.