August 5, 2009 6:13 PM
Are Third-Years Ready to Try Felony Cases?
Posted by Zach Lowe
There's a growing consensus that third-year law students are ready to handle felony criminal matters, provided they have the proper supervision.
This week Ohio became the forty-second state to allow 3Ls to handle more than misdemeanors, changing course after a long campaign led by the Indigent Defense Clinic at the Ohio Justice & Policy Center, a nonprofit that partners with several area law schools.
The clinic has long argued that the students are ready and that overburdened public defenders and prosecutors need the help--especially during a deep recession. The Ohio Supreme Court changed the rule over the weekend, leaving just eight states, including New York, in the dwindling minority that limit student involvement to misdemeanors.
The new rule requires 3Ls handling felony cases to have some affiliation with a law school clinic or similar nonprofit. It also requires that experienced lawyers supervise the students, up to the point of sitting at the trial table if a third-year is questioning a witness.
Elizabeth Gillespie, who graduated last year from one of the law schools linked with the Ohio Justice & Policy Center (the Salmon P. Chase College of Law at Northern Kentucky University), laments the fact that for her, the change came one year too late.
"It's very disappointing," says Gillespie, now in private practice as a criminal attorney. "When people say felony cases are more complicated than misdemeanors, that's a myth. To the defendant it's just as serious to be charged with domestic violence as it is to be charged with trafficking cocaine."
Amanda Smith, a rising 3L at the University of Cincinnati College of Law, is excited to work on felony cases next year. After her summer associateship at Jones Day, Smith will enroll in a ten-day boot camp with the Indigent Defense Clinic to help prepare her for handling criminal cases. (The clinic continues to educate a select group of students, including Smith, throughout the academic year).
"It's scary, because when you work on felonies, you're looking at more prison time," Smith says. "But it's an amazing opportunity for students that we wouldn't get otherwise."
Not everyone was on board with the change. A few local lawyers argued it would lead to lower quality defense for indigent criminals, and at least one major area law school backed off supporting the change because of the extra responsibility it would place on students.
"We were comfortable with the existing rule," says Steven Huefner, an associate professor at the Moritz College of Law at Ohio State University and director of the school's legal clinics. "We feel we can provide students with as much experience as they'd get in a felony case without the stress or higher stakes."
(It should be noted that Moritz College of Law didn't actively oppose the bill. One of Huefner's colleagues, Ric Simmons, disputed the idea that felonies are substantially different from misdemeanors in this story in the Cleveland Plain-Dealer, though he also told the paper he is unsure if Moritz will allow third-years to work on felony cases.)
That's unfortunate, considering students are "chomping at the bit to handle these cases," says Janet Moore, a senior staff attorney at the Ohio Justice & Policy Center. "Law schools do a great job teaching theory, but too often students are doing their practical learning after they graduate and join public defender offices."Make a comment