Criminal Justice Clinic Listen as Prof. J.D. King, director of the Law School's new criminal defense clinic, explains some of the goals and benefits of the new program.
The School of Law at Washington and Lee University has launched a new legal clinic focusing on misdemeanor criminal defense. Law students working in the Criminal Justice Clinic will represent in district and circuit court indigent clients facing criminal charges including assault, driving while intoxicated, shoplifting, and marijuana possession.
Clinic director J.D. King, who was himself a public defender for the District of Columbia, hopes that the clinic will better prepare students planning on career in criminal defense for the challenges and frustrations of an often understaffed and underfunded public defender system.
“It’s not unusual for public defenders to represent over fifty clients at a time,” says King. “Our students will rarely have more than two ongoing cases, and this will allow them to learn the real way to try a case, to leave no stone unturned. They will be able to focus on a case in a way that is not always possible in a high volume criminal defense practice.”
The Clinic will represent low-income clients from Lexington, Rockbridge County and surrounding areas and receive case assignments directly from the courts. Operating on a completely pro bono basis, the Clinic will take no money from clients and will not receive compensation from the court system. King estimates the Clinic will handle 40-60 cases each year.
In addition to providing a level of representation second to none in the area, the goal of the Clinic is to teach students the art of criminal defense and effective trial practice. In addition to learning the substantive and procedural law of criminal practice, students will be responsible for the entire life of the case until the trial is over. They will conduct client interviews, make arguments on bail and conditions of release, find and interview witnesses, litigate evidence discovery, and argue sentencing motions among other tasks.
Students working in the Clinic have found their first steps into the world of criminal defense to be humbling. Nicholas Neidzwski ‘10L, who is working on a DUI case, notes that it was disconcerting to find he was not able to provide ready answers to his client’s seemingly simple questions, such as “Am I going to jail?”
“Meeting with my client for the first time, I was forced to become comfortable with the answer ‘I don't know, but I will look into it and get back to you tomorrow’,” says Neidzwski. “The practice of law has become more real to me through the Clinic, and it has become evident that zealous advocacy is not the only part to being a good lawyer.”
For his part, King hopes the clinic will develop in students an understanding of what a well-functioning indigent criminal defense firm should look like, while exposing them to the significant challenges of this area of practice.
“Students will feel frustrated navigating a new system that’s not always user friendly, and dealing with a deck that seems stacked against you,” says King. “But they will experience those frustrations in an environment that is supportive and encourages self reflection, becoming better and more creative litigators in the process.”