Law students wrap up first semester of assisting public defenders

Law students Jessica Nixon, Tom Robins and Brandon Merritt have represented 35 clients in the Centre County Court of Common Pleas under the supervision of attorneys Richard Settgast and Casey McClain. Established last year at Penn State Dickinson School of Law, the Indigent Criminal Justice Clinic gives students the opportunity to serve criminal defendants accused of misdemeanor offenses.

“The clinic provides us the unique opportunity to learn by doing,” said Brandon Merritt. “We often walk into the clinic, get handed a client’s file and are advocating in front of a judge within the hour.”

"We often walk into the clinic, get handed a client’s file, and are advocating in front of a judge within the hour."
                                      — law student Brandon Merritt

Clients who cannot afford private counsel are referred to the clinic through the Centre County Public Defender Office. Students are responsible for conducting interviews and navigating their clients through all phases of the criminal process.

On Tuesday and Thursday afternoons the students have client interviews and training. They also have preliminary hearings on Wednesday mornings. Nixon said she can’t imagine a better hands-on learning experience.

“I’ve been able to learn more about the criminal process, participate directly by appearing before the court and work directly with clients,” said Nixon. “I have learned how to be a lawyer rather than think about it in a theoretical sense.”

Nixon said the clinic has taught her how to keep an open mind about people based on first impression. Her desire to help her clients keeps her motivated. “I want the best for them because they want the best for themselves.”

Robins said he enjoys seeing the Constitution at work and protecting people’s basic rights.

“Before law school I never imagined myself in a public defender’s office,” said Robins. “But just an understanding of what is at stake provides the motivation to come in here every day.”

The third-year students are enjoying their time in the courtroom and the demanding work that comes with their experience. They said the most challenging part of working for the public defender’s office is balancing the various interests and goals of the client while trying to achieve the best possible outcome.

“Reconciling the two diametrically opposed viewpoints of the client’s view of the incident and the police report is the most difficult part,” said Robins.

Nixon, Merritt and Robins said students interested in the clinic should be able to accept constructive criticism, speak on their feet, deal with difficult people and accept responsibility for mistakes. Over the course of the semester, the trio has used a unique aspect of the clinic to prepare for their time in court: their carpool. They said their trips to and from the Centre County courthouse are helpful to prepare for and unwind from a busy day — on especially difficult days — the group makes a special stop at Chick-fil-A.

“The drive is actually very helpful,” said Merritt. “We use the time to practice our advocacy skills before going into court or to debrief what happened in the courtroom at the end of the day. It is a great team building experience that has helped make us a stronger team.”

The students may be learning litigation, negotiation and advocacy skills, but they’re also helping each other and the community. Casey McClain said the clinic gives clients an advantage because of the additional legal perspectives in the office. 

“Working with them is refreshing and keeps you young,” said McClain. “It forces me to re-evaluate why I do things, what I interpret the law is and gives me an appreciation for what we do. They are going to be spectacular lawyers.”

Their practice in the court room, classroom and in the car has paid off; Nixon is sitting second chair on a trial in a few weeks. “You can see them growing everyday experience-wise that they are finding their voice and their confidence,” said McClain. “Their confidence comes mostly from a belief in themselves that they’re doing good work, important work and they’re making a difference.”

Post-graduate plans 

All three clinic students plan to continue using courtroom advocacy skills. Nixon will move to Albuquerque, N.M., to work at Madison & Mroz, P.A., a law firm that focuses on medical malpractice and insurance defense. Merritt plans to work for a federal law enforcement agency. Last summer, he worked for the Securities and Exchange Commission in the Trial Unit doing civil enforcement actions. Robins has accepted a clerkship with the Delaware Family Court in Newcastle County. 

Last Updated July 22, 2015