Blog author WMU-Cooley Law School Auxiliary Dean and Professor Tonya Krause-Phelan teaches Criminal Law, Criminal Procedure, Defending Battered Women, Criminal Sentencing, and Ethics in Criminal Cases. She coaches national mock trial and moot court teams with the West Michigan Defenders Clinic and frequently appears as a commentator on numerous radio, television, print, and internet media sources regarding criminal law and procedure issues.
When I attended law school in the late ’80s, becoming a criminal practitioner was probably the least desired career choice a law student could make. At that time, many law students, law professors, and practitioners alike thought that the only people who would “settle” for a job as a public defender or as a prosecutor were those who could not get a job with a mega-firm or as in-house counsel for a Fortune 500 company.
Because I knew when I went to law school I wanted to be a public defender, I followed my passion instead of conventional wisdom. I was fortunate enough to land a job right out of law school as a public defender. Eventually, I went into private practice, where I specialized in criminal defense. But, I never gave up my passion for indigent defense, and as a result, I continued to accept court-appointed cases. Throughout my many years of practice, criminal practitioners continued to be viewed as a sub-category of lawyers.
But, nothing could be further from the truth. Criminal practitioners are some of the most passionate, dedicated, and talented lawyers in the profession. After all, practicing in the area of criminal law is not for the faint of heart; it is one of the most demanding, challenging, and specialized areas of practice with clients’ lives and liberty literally hanging in the balance. With everything known today about DNA exoneration cases, mistaken identification cases, police shootings, and other systemic and ethical challenges facing the criminal justice system, people have changed their minds about public defenders, criminal defense lawyers, and prosecutors. Today people are actually deciding to attend law school for the specific purpose of becoming a criminal practitioner.
For those who want to become a criminal practitioner, they should look for a law school that does everything possible to adequately prepare its students for the rigors of a criminal practice. Whether a law school advertises itself as a “practice ready” school or not, several factors foretell a school’s pledge to preparing its students for criminal practice. Prospective law students interested in practicing criminal law should consider the following factors:
- Experienced Faculty: Professors who have practiced in the field are uniquely qualified to provide students with a practical context in which to learn substantive criminal law. Learn whether the professors who teach Criminal Law and Procedure practiced criminal law prior to becoming full-time faculty members. Also, determine whether the school’s adjunct faculty are criminal practitioners. By hiring criminal law practitioners to serve as adjunct faculty, a law school demonstrates its dedication to keeping its curriculum current and relevant.
- Criminal Law-based Clinics: Ensure the law school hosts a clinic that focuses on criminal law, usually public defender or prosecutor clinics. Because many states allow students to work under the direct supervision of a licensed attorney, this type of clinical experience provides students with the ability to apply the knowledge and skills they have learned in the classroom to real-life, real-time clients.
- Innocence Project: Several law schools run Innocence Project programs. In these programs students have the responsibility to investigate and process cases for individuals who have been wrongfully convicted. Nothing speaks louder about a law school’s commitment to the efficacy of the criminal justice system than its commitment to representing individuals who should not have been convicted and need assistance in gaining their freedom.
- A Strong Skills-based Program: Law schools that are committed to developing strong criminal practitioners will also have a strong skills-based program. Look at the classes the law school requires students to complete. A curriculum that requires several research and writing, trial and appellate advocacy, and other skills-based courses demonstrates that the school is preparing its students for practice.
- Community Collaboration and Engagement: Look to see if the law school regularly engages with community organizations and events. By hosting and participating in events that foster interaction with community organizations, local leaders, and members of the criminal justice system, a law school demonstrates a strong responsibility to fostering and improving an ethical and dedicated criminal justice system. Look to see if the law school has hosted or participated in round-table and panel discussions, town hall-style meetings, and lecture series that include such people as police officers, judges, criminal practitioners, and experts within the criminal justice system.
- Proximity to Local Courthouses, Legal Community, and Organizations: If a law school is close to courthouses, law firms, and other legal entities, law students will more likely augment their educational opportunities by visiting local courthouse, watching trials and other legal proceedings, connect with members of the bar, and become student members of local bar organizations, events, and public service opportunities. Observing how lawyers conduct cases helps students develop their own skills.
- Strong Alumni Base: Finally, many law schools provide prospective students with a list of alumni. Ask the law school to provide you with a list of alumni who are practicing criminal law and contact them. Not only can alumni answer questions about practicing criminal law, they can discuss whether the school adequately prepared them for criminal practice. Ask their advice regarding which elective classes to take, clinics or externships to apply for, and which extra-curricular activities most adequately prepared them for criminal practice.