It is January, the beginning of the spring semester, and D.C. law students are back in court. There is the Juvenile Justice Clinic and the Prettyman Fellowship program, both programs run out of Georgetown. There is also the D.C. Law Students in Court internship that draws on law students from American, Catholic, Georgetown, George Washington, and Howard universities.
Given the stakes involved, you might wonder how smart it is to have criminal defendants represented by mere law students. Based on my (admittedly limited) observations, the clients seem to be well-represented. The students are smart and prepared. They are knowledgeable about criminal law and procedure, and, developing a certain rapport with their clients, they argue forcefully for their clients’ interests as if their own lives depended on the outcome. Most importantly, they are supervised by an experienced attorney – a Kris Henning or a Texas Morris, for example — who will step in as necessary. In short, clients get the legal expertise of a proven practitioner supported by the boundless energy and enthusiasm of a law student. I also imagine that, if in doubt, most judges will cut the law students and their clients a break.
I have also enjoyed serving as co-counsel with D.C. law students in multi-defendant cases. Doing their own investigations, the students are completely on top of the case. They enjoy talking through legal theories and strategies. And, perhaps most importantly, they return phone calls.
I still remember my own experience as a clinical intern with the public defender’s office in Philadelphia during my third year in law school. One of my classmates, Mia Roberts, was a young-looking woman who stood 5 feet tall in heels. You should have seen the condescending smile on the police officer’s face when she stood up – barely visible over the lecturn – to cross-examine him. What the officer did not know was that Roberts was the star of our law school’s trial team and the recipient of multiple national awards for trial advocacy going back to high school. He was not smiling for very long.