PUBLISHED:January 31, 2008

Appellate Litigation Clinic strengthens advocacy skills of its students

February 1, 2008 — Duke Law School’s Appellate Litigation Clinic gives law students the unique experience of arguing appeals in real, not simulated, cases before state and federal courts of appeal. In the clinic, students represent low-income clients under the close supervision of Duke Law professors Erwin Chemerinsky, James Coleman, and Catherine Fisk.

“The clinic is a terrific opportunity for students,” says Professor Chemerinsky. “It challenges them to develop their oral and written advocacy skills, while meeting the real legal needs of clients who would not otherwise have a lawyer.”

Through the clinic, students learn a wide variety of professional skills including legal research and analysis, brief writing, oral advocacy, and case management. “Nothing can top it,” says Leeann Rosnick ’08 about her experience arguing a case in the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals last September. “It was fun and it was definitely worth it. Honestly this has been the best experience in law school.”

Rosnick and Libby Magee ’08 worked together, along with three other students in the Appellate Litigation Clinic, to prepare the briefs for their case, U.S. v. Weymouth. The appeal was based on two issues: ineffective assistance of counsel and breach of plea. According to their assessment of the case, the defendant, Daniel A. Weymouth, had been given inaccurate sentencing information by his public defender and pled guilty based on that information. Additionally, the government used information Weymouth provided after his plea agreement to enhance his sentence.

“Composing the original brief and the reply brief took a lot of research and emailing back and forth to get the wording just as we wanted it, to be the most effective,” Magee says. “We couldn’t get him out of jail, but we wanted him to be sentenced appropriately.

“I felt like we could really take ownership of the case and the professors weren’t dictating what arguments or strategy to use,” she continues. “They really helped us to think through it and craft the arguments on our own — with their expertise, which we needed, but they weren’t putting words into our mouths.”

The real life aspect of the clinic struck a chord with Magee, as well. “[The case] wasn’t a fact pattern that a professor had put together specifically for us to spot certain issues, it involved a real person with real issues and problems,” she says.

Furthermore, Magee says the clinic experience boosted her confidence heading into her 2L summer job and reaffirmed her decision to come to law school. “It’s easy to get caught up in how abstract law school can be, and I forget that this is something that I love doing and look forward to practicing — in a place where I can work with real people and on a team with other attorneys,” she says.

Complications with the case pushed the briefing back to the 2007 spring semester and Rosnick presented an oral argument on Weymouth’s behalf to the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in September 2007. “Arguing before the court was certainly the most intellectual experience I’ve had in law school. The dialogue, going back and forth, was really remarkable,” Rosnick says.

“I think something that helped and gave us credibility was that we had been able to spend so much time with the case,” she continues. “It was a very active panel, more so than we expected. We thought they might go easy on me because I was a student, but that definitely was not the case.”

Even though the court eventually ruled against their client, Rosnick maintains that her experience in the Appellate Litigation Clinic ranks above all others in law school.

“The judges in the Fourth Circuit come off the bench after the argument to shake the counsel’s hand and everyone was very complimentary,” Rosnick says. “One even said that I could go back and tell my client that he had received excellent representation. That was nice to hear. It validated all of the work and all of the stress.”