Penn State Law students experience ‘real life’ as a lawyer

Students lend a hand to Centre County Public Defender Office

Penn State Law third-year students Alaina Dickens and Dan White review a defendant's file. Credit: Vanessa McLaughlinAll Rights Reserved.

Penn State Law student Jill Menning is handed a folder with the information of a client charged with possession of marijuana. She has about 15 minutes to look over the case file before interviewing her walk-in client for his preliminary hearing in an hour. The arrest report alleges that the client consented to a search of his premises and admitted the marijuana belonged to him. She must come up with a strategy to negotiate with the assistant district attorney (A.D.A.) assigned to the case.

In the crowded, chaotic main courtroom, students Alaina Dickens and Dan White wait near the bench to speak to another A.D.A., who is assigned to their client’s case. They are one of about 20 small groups of counsel and clients in deep discussion and negotiation before court officially begins. Dickens and White met their client and reviewed his charges for the first time the previous day. Their client is charged with burglary, and they hope to convince the A.D.A. that the facts of the case make him a candidate for the Accelerated Rehabilitative Disposition program, or A.R.D., a special pre-trial intervention program in Pennsylvania for nonviolent offenders with no prior or a limited record.  

Dickens, Menning and White are all third-year Penn State Law students gaining real-world experience through the school’s Indigent Criminal Justice Clinic, which provides students with the opportunity to represent indigent criminal defendants accused of misdemeanor offenses in the Centre County Court of Common Pleas under the supervision of an attorney from the Centre County Public Defender Office. Under the direction of Penn State Law adjunct professors Casey McClain and Richard Settgast, both assistant public defenders in Centre County, students work as a defense litigation attorney learning litigation, negotiation and advocacy skills. This is a hands-on experience where students conduct interviews of their clients and work to best represent the client through all phases of the criminal justice process. 

“This is fast-paced and cases get handed to us one after the other, with a short amount of preparation time,” says Dickens. “We have to think on our feet, fill in the gaps of the story, think of possible defenses and issues; this really hones our skills.”

Back in the public defender’s office, before Menning interviews her client charged with possession of marijuana, she sits down with Settgast who coaches her through the different aspects of the case. They refer to this type of client as a “walk-in,” meaning he came to court and asked for representation from the public defender’s office on the day of his preliminary hearing. 

Menning and Settgast go through the facts of the case, and Menning sees a possible arguable issue right away.

“How did the police gain access to his residence?” Menning asks. “Did he consent to them entering?”

She makes a note in the file to discuss this aspect with the client.

“Do you remember what the penalty is for possession of marijuana?” Settgast quizzes her. 

“Six months driver’s license suspension, up to 30 days in jail, and a maximum fine of $500,” she responds automatically.

Menning quickly recognizes that the client has no prior record and mentions to Settgast that the client may be eligible for A.R.D. After this discussion, she goes to interview the client, who is waiting in a small conference room. She must quickly develop a rapport with him, and get him to trust her, by asking for his version of events and reviewing the legal process, the penalties he faces, the issues in his case and his options. She has about 30 minutes with her client.

In the courtroom, White and Dickens locate the A.D.A. for their client’s alleged burglary case. Because the client agreed to waive his preliminary hearing, White and Dickens can now write a letter, setting out how their client is eligible for A.R.D. They will do this at the end of their day because now they must meet with a different client, also charged with burglary, who has been in jail for 10 days waiting for his preliminary hearing.   

Dickens, McCLain and White meet with this client in a smaller courtroom on the third floor of the courthouse.  With this client facing felony charges, McClain takes the lead on the interview, while Dickens and White observe.  McClain reviews the client’s options for a preliminary hearing or waiving it for more favorable bail conditions. After the 15-minute meeting ends, Dickens and White sit on a bench in the hallway outside the courtroom and review the case file before negotiating with the A.D.A. 

“These students are being lawyers,” McCLain says. “While they need to know the law, they are developing legal interpersonal skills: how to talk with clients, how to talk with district attorneys, how to tell a story.”

The day continues with clients, interviews and negotiations until 11:30 a.m. when the students meet in McClain’s office to compile any information they need to send to clients and to debrief each other on the morning’s events.

McClain points out that the clients who need public defenders have no one else. These clients need to vent, need someone to listen and be there for them, and the students are learning these client communications, as well as interacting with the clients’ families’ when they are involved.  

Dickens and White credit Penn State Law professor Kit Kinports’ Criminal Procedure class in developing their passion for criminal law. They say her class provided them a solid base for this clinic experience.

“We may generally know how the case will proceed, because of the charge or the law,” White says. “But we need to be able to adapt it to each client, and sometimes the most difficult part is managing client expectations of the outcome, even when it’s something they don’t want to hear.”

Menning agrees with him, and when the self-proclaimed “planner” started the clinic, she was mindful of its spontaneity and fast pace. While most cases the students defend are misdemeanors, have few disputed facts, and plead out, Menning said each case still has a unique set of circumstances and clients.

“I quickly learned to be elastic and flexible,” she says. “Issues spring up, and I need to be ready to figure it out, tell the client’s story, and know the A.D.A. to achieve the most favorable sentence.”

McClain and Settgast are always present, even if only in the background, guiding, answering questions, and mentoring the students. However, while they start as mentors, McClain says, by the end of the year, they are colleagues.

“These students are above and beyond our expectations,” he says. “We didn’t just get three lawyers, we got three criminal defense lawyers, and they live it, they breathe it, and it defines them.”

Last Updated July 22, 2015