Investigative Internship Pushes the Boundaries

Student Lenai Johnson
Lenai Johnson, State Public Defender’s Office

When UW-Madison senior Lenai Johnson visualizes her future, she doesn’t see herself working in jails and correctional facilities. But when she accepted an investigative internship last summer with the State Public Defender’s Office, the Fitchburg native knew she was putting herself on the path to success with invaluable skills and experiences.

Following in the footsteps of some of the state’s finest investigators, Lenai worked with many people from across the field of criminal justice, including prisoners, lawyers and members of the police force. Lenai devoted most of her time to meticulous and tedious work, including visits to jailhouses, interviews and records requests relevant to cases.

“My skills as a critical thinker were put to the test,” Lenai says. “For most cases, I had large amounts of reading that was needed to be completed so that I had an understanding of the case before I went out and interviewed people. I then had to pick out vital details in the police reports that differed from what the people I interviewed said.”

Lenai’s new skills add up to a solid foundation for a career as a public defense investigator. But that’s not the path she’s on, and it’s all part of her plan.

“As a Psychology and Legal Studies major, my goal was to build a better understanding of the criminal justice system by seeing how the law functions from many different angles,” explains Lenai. “Ultimately, I achieved that goal.”

Lenai plans to attend law school on her way to a career in human rights law. She wants nothing more than to contribute to cases dealing with human trafficking, refugees, crimes against humanity and genocide.

For Lenai, open-mindedness and flexibility were critical during the internship itself, but also in the internship search and selection process.

“Students need to be open to trying things that aren’t necessarily the same as their dream career,” she says. “Thinking creatively and seizing opportunities can open up doors that give you a different perspective on your career field.”

Lenai’s internship was sponsored in part by the Summer Internship Scholarship and the George and Jane Shinners Family.

Dan Winogradoff, 2019