On Duke's new Federal Defender Integrated Externship, the verdict is in

November 24, 2009Duke Law News

Bettina Roberts ’10 knows exactly what she wants to do after she graduates: “I want to be a public defender. There’s absolutely no chance I’m doing anything else. Now it’s just a choice between the federal system and the state system.”

That’s why Roberts was delighted to find out that she could follow up her 2L summer internship with the Public Defender Service for the District of Columbia with an intensive fall externship in the Office of the Federal Public Defender for the Eastern District of North Carolina, in Raleigh.

Along with her seven classmates in the Law School’s new Federal Defender Integrated Domestic Externship program, Roberts spent 16 hours each week through the fall semester working in the Office of the Federal Public Defender (FPDO). Supervised by staff attorneys, students in the program assist with research projects, prepare sentencing memos, draft motions in felony cases, and argue motions before magistrate judges; conduct client interviews — usually in lockup; field first appearances in duty court held weekly in Raleigh; and carry misdemeanor caseloads on a military docket heard each month in Fayetteville, where Fort Bragg is located. One member of the inaugural class even made an opening statement at trial.

The students gather weekly at the Law School for a two-hour class where they can share their experiences and observations from their work at the FPDO and delve more deeply into substantive areas of federal criminal law. Taught by Jim Coleman, the John S. Bradway Professor of the Practice of Law, their FPDO supervisors, attorneys Lauren Brennan and Diana Pereira, and Lecturing Fellow Jennifer Dominguez, a former prosecutor, the class takes the students through issues that arise at all stages in federal criminal cases, as well as more theoretical issues such as the increasing federalization of criminal law. Guest speakers in the class have included the two U.S. magistrate judges before whom the students have appeared most frequently, Judge William A. Webb and Judge James E. Gates.

“It was good to be in the courtroom and it was also great to learn about the federal system,” says Roberts of her externship experience. “It was absolutely perfect for me.”

That sentiment was shared by all of Roberts’ classmates interviewed for this story, most of whom had some prior experience and defined interest in criminal law and practice. Craig Schauer ’10 says the externship has provided a valuable counterpoint to his earlier summer internship in the Office of the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of North Carolina.

“Working with clients, actually seeing the story that goes along with the name and the alleged crime, was very eye-opening,” he says. “It helped me appreciate the personal stories and the human drama behind each case.” Should he choose to pursue a career as a prosecutor at some future time — he will clerk for Justice Paul M. Newby on the North Carolina Supreme Court for two years following graduation — Schauer thinks his externship could inform his approach.

“When considering what might constitute a ‘fair’ sentence, for example, I think I would be more sensitive to what a sentence is going to do. A specific sentence might be fair according to the facts of the case and the defendant’s criminal history, but what else might be going on in that person’s life? Is this somebody who actually learned a lesson prior to sentencing? Is it somebody who hasn’t? Or is this somebody who genuinely was in the wrong place at the wrong time and factually and legally committed the crime but didn’t really hit at the core of the crime the law was aimed to capture?”

The class, says Schauer, allows the students “to step back and explore the statutes and ask what’s really going on” in court and in federal criminal law more broadly. “Not only did it fill us in on all this background information that we were expected to know, but then we also explored whether or not that’s the right way for things to work. That’s not necessarily what you do when you’re in the office. Some things you just can’t challenge in the course of a case.”

In Schauer’s view, the ongoing externship program is serving as a highly effective bridge to practice. “The most obvious way is by letting a law student actually stand up in court and more or less act like a lawyer,” he says. “You aren’t expected to get it all right, but you can have someone teach you and coach you along the way. It’s a great way to integrate real-world experience with a legal education.”

The view from the bench and bar

U.S. Magistrate Judge William Webb offered this assessment of Duke Law students’ courtroom appearances, in late November: “They are performing at the level of junior lawyers,” he said, commending their consistently high level of preparation for the court appearances, both academically and with respect to the facts of their cases. “There has been a clear evolution in their skills, their confidence, and the kinds of presentations they make. There have been a number of students I’ve called up and have praised the quality of their representation because they are, in fact, representing clients when they appear in court.”

Webb has viewed the externship program as a “win for us, a win for the students, and a win for the school,” ever since Dean David F. Levi first broached the idea with him over dinner last summer.

“I have long believed that lawyers and judges, in particular, have an obligation to ensure that the persons who practice before the various forums are as well prepared as they can be,” says Webb, who regularly hires interns in his chambers. “I think it exposes law students to what it’s like to be in court and how one handles oneself in court.”

It also helps de-mystify federal court practice, he adds. “A program like this guarantees that younger lawyers will have less trepidation than most about taking on a case that should be in federal court to federal court or, when they get there, acquitting themselves well.”

When Webb shared Levi’s externship idea with his colleague, Judge Gates, and Tom McNamara T’61, the federal public defender for the Eastern District of North Carolina, he found similar enthusiasm.

“It’s exciting because it gives Duke Law students an intense indoctrination into federal criminal law from the defense perspective,” says McNamara, who also has served as the U.S. attorney for North Carolina’s Eastern District. While his office routinely hires interns and externs, his staff of 55 — including 26 lawyers who manage one of the highest caseloads of any FPDO in the country — has benefited from the presence of “a concentrated group of very bright students,” he says.

“The Duke Law students have been able to get involved a little more deeply in the cases, they’ve reviewed discovery, they’ve worked on motions, they’ve been to court to see the work product develop. It definitely has helped our staff to have them here.”

Pereira, an FPDO research and writing attorney and one of their supervisors, agrees. “The students have been churning through the work faster than we can give it to them, and they’ve been producing work of a very high quality,” she says. “I think it’s been a great opportunity to ‘outsource’ things [the staff] would normally do themselves.

“They have been able to hit the ground running,” she adds. “There was a pretty steep learning curve in the beginning but they all seemed very comfortable with getting an assignment and being ready to go.”
Students, public defenders, and judges alike, are delighted to see the program continue. “It’s been great having the ‘kids,’” says Webb.
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