Appellate & Supreme Court Clinic Experience

by Brian Focarino, Class of 2015

Brian Focarino is originally from Fairfax Station, Virginia. He earned his B.A. from William & Mary with majors in government and linguistics, and his M.Sc. in linguistics from the University of Edinburgh. Brian is a member of the W&M Appellate & Supreme Court Clinic and serves as Executive Editor of the Law School’s Business Law Review.

brianfocarinophotoAs a third year, I have the good fortune of being selected to participate, alongside seven other 3Ls, in William & Mary’s yearlong Appellate & Supreme Court Clinic.  Long-time appellate advocate Tillman Breckenridge, who serves as Counsel and leader of Reed Smith LLP’s appellate practice in Washington, D.C. and Virginia, directs the Clinic.  Our Clinic, one of nine on offer at the Law School, introduces eight students to appellate practice in the federal Courts of Appeals and the United States Supreme Court.  Throughout the course of the fall and spring semesters, the class is broken into teams of two, working to identify cases suitable for the clinic and preparing briefs, petitions, and other filings in cases involving the First and Fourth Amendments with the help of attorneys from Reed Smith.  For our cases currently pending in the federal courts of appeals, teams are also given the exceptional opportunity to present oral argument when the court allows for it.  The Clinic meets once per week, with each meeting divided into two parts: instruction time and case time.

During the first half of our meeting, we receive instruction on appellate practice.  We discuss the strengths and shortcomings of briefs, petitions and issues that have arisen in the Clinic’s cases.  We also listen to and critique oral arguments, writing and rhetorical techniques.  During this time we benefit from getting to learn first-hand from Tillman and several other Reed Smith attorneys, asking questions and debating the merits of particular strategies in sample cases as well the Clinic’s own.  Being able to interact closely with such an active and skilled member of the appellate bar allows each of us to learn much more than we would otherwise be able to from a casebook.  Likewise, students are given the opportunity to take the writing and advocacy lessons from Clinic instruction and put them to immediate use in our own briefs.  The second half of the Clinic involves discussing the merits and procedural posture of federal district court cases from across the country that are potentially appealable.  We also discuss developments in the cases we have decided to watch or pursue, including progress made on briefs on the merits, amicus briefs, petitions for rehearing or certiorari, appendices, and other filings.

This semester I have had the opportunity to work on cases at both federal courts of appeals and Supreme Court level.  Together with my partner Chris Kaltsas ‘15, I have fully outlined arguments on appeal in a case involving a male police officer’s unlawful seizure of nude photos located on a woman’s cell phone while she was being briefly detained in a police station.  I have also had the exceptional learning experience of preparing and filing my first petition for a writ of certiorari in the Supreme Court.  That case involved Clinic representation of a plaintiff seeking to proceed in forma pauperis who had requested that the required financial information filed in support of his petition be sealed and reviewed in private by the court. The plaintiff’s request was denied by the federal court of appeals, and we requested that the Supreme Court hear the case.  Our petition argued that forced disclosure of historically private, sensitive financial information subverts the very purpose of providing indigent services, forces indigent plaintiffs to jettison their privacy interest in financial information in order to access the courts, and has divided the federal courts of appeals.  We further argued that the public and press have no unqualified First Amendment right to access informational filings that serve a purely ministerial, rather than judicial function.  The ability to work alongside Reed Smith attorneys, as well as the plaintiff himself, to develop and refine our arguments throughout the semester provided one of the single best learning experiences I have had in law school.  The chance to start a petition from scratch at the beginning of the semester, and then seeing your petition on the Supreme Court’s website by the end of the term, is exhilarating.

I very much look forward to the interesting cases and issues the Clinic will handle during my final semester, and feel lucky for the opportunity to gain such hands-on experience and interact with such skilled practitioners before I enter the profession myself.

Here are Brian’s other posts: Law Firm in Silicone ValleyHalfway Through BBQThanks, and Meet a Member of the Class of 2015!

This blog post is part of a series featuring student experiences in William & Mary Law School’s nine clinics. To view more clinic posts, click here.