Even Before Graduation, UVA Law Students Prosecute Criminal Cases Through Clinic
Lynn Schlie, a third-year law student at the University of Virginia, stood before Judge William G. Barkley in Albemarle County General District Court on a recent morning and laid out the commonwealth's case against a woman who had been arrested for her second violation of driving on a suspended license.
"If you don't have a license, you need to apply for one, do whatever you need to do," Barkley instructed the defendant after hearing Schlie present case. "Otherwise, it's just saying the law doesn't apply to me. It does. The law applies to all of us."
Barkley sentenced the defendant to a six-month suspended jail sentence, a 90-day loss of license and a $160 fine. Schlie is working as a part-time prosecutor in the Albemarle County Commonwealth's Attorney's Office as part of UVA Law's Prosecution Clinic.
"Being able to try real cases in court has been a great way to apply the fundamentals we learn in law school, whether it's the fundamentals of criminal law, public speaking skills, or the rules of evidence," Schlie said. "It's been a great experience. I've gotten more out-of-classroom time [and] more in-the-courtroom experience than I ever thought I was going to before I graduated."
The yearlong Prosecution Clinic places third-year law students in 19 commonwealth's attorneys' offices and two federal prosecutors' offices — primarily in the greater Charlottesville region — where they work at least one day a week.
"The focus of the Prosecution Clinic is to explore the prosecutorial function and the principles of prosecution," said Assistant U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Virginia Ronald Huber, who co-teaches the clinic with Joe Platania, an assistant commonwealth's attorney for the city of Charlottesville. "We do this in two ways. One is an in-class component. And the other is the more important field placement component."
In the courtroom, the clinic students handle all aspects of prosecuting cases, from working with law enforcement officers during the investigation phase all the way through trial and sentencing.
"The best way I can describe the courtroom component is comparing reading a manual on flying a plane with actually climbing into the cockpit and taking off," Platania said. "The students are all extremely bright and talented but for trial work, there is no substitute for real world experience. They are prosecuting cases involving real crimes with real defendants, real witnesses and real victims that have real consequences."
The students, who obtain third-year practice certificates that allow them to appear as counsel in court, work under the supervision of licensed prosecutors.
Schlie, who plans to do trial work after graduation, said the clinic been the best experience of her nearly three years at UVA Law.
"The Prosecution Clinic really gives you some valuable skills for being a real lawyer," she said. "Working with different types of people, different kinds of attorneys, learning how to research the law and apply it to your situation, is especially important — it's one thing to do it for a written assignment. It's another thing to do it when you're in court."
Third-year law student Matthew Gill is working in the Nelson County Commonwealth's Attorney's Office as part of the clinic.
At first, Gill handled a variety of misdemeanor cases, such as speeding tickets and reckless driving. As he gained more experience, however, he began to take on cases involving more serious offenses, including assault and battery, possession of marijuana and harassment.
"I've done mock trial and I've done moot court before," he said, "but [in court], having someone who's really concerned, who was really hurt, maybe someone who was hit with a beer bottle, having someone who was threatened and lost sleep over it, who had messages left on their machine that made them afraid — you really feel like you're helping them and that they're getting some comfort from you going into court and doing something on their behalf."
Gill, who plans to work at a firm after graduation, said his experience with the Prosecution Clinic has improved his ability to think on his feet in court, as well as his skills in reading and researching questions of law.
Most importantly, however, Gill said that real cases bring out a different kind of learning.
"[You're working on behalf] of a real person with a real interest at stake," he said. "You want to protect the community. And if you do it right, that's fulfilling. And unlike in class, if you do it wrong, they send you back out there. This really counts. You only really get one repetition and you have to get it right. There's a different sort of pressure that pushes you to really learn how to do it."
Third-year law student and clinic participant Philip Messier said the clinic has prepared him well for his post-graduation job as a prosecutor with the Massachusetts Attorney General's Office.
"There's really no other way, as a law student, to get in the courtroom so often while you're still in school," he said. "That's great training for any kind of law that you want to do. It so happens that I want to be a prosecutor. That's what my first job is going to be after I graduate, so it's been especially helpful for me because so much of a state prosecutor's work comes in the courtroom and that's the kind of work I'm getting to do in the clinic."
Messier, who is working in the Culpeper Commonwealth's Attorney's Office, said he particularly enjoyed that the clinic allowed him to serve the public.
"It's one of the few legal jobs where you can really work for the public interest," he said. "Your client, in a way, is the community and that's a really unique position to be in as a lawyer."