Arguing Before the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals — Appellate and Supreme Court Clinic

lizrademacherby Liz Rademacher, Class of 2016

I’ve had lots of great experiences at William & Mary Law School over the past three years, but the most rewarding—and most challenging—experience of them all was arguing my very first case in front of a court. And not just any court. I’m talking about the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, a federal appellate court just a step down from the U.S. Supreme Court. I can honestly say that I never would’ve thought I’d argue a case in front of the D.C. Circuit before I started law school, but William & Mary made it all possible for me through its excellent clinical education program.

This journey started in August, when I joined William & Mary’s Appellate and Supreme Court Clinic. Although the clinic focuses mainly on First and Fourth Amendment cases, the issues in our cases are wide-ranging and groundbreaking. The students in the clinic work in pairs throughout the year to monitor and manage our case load.

In September, the clinic began representing a veteran from D.C. in a Fourth Amendment case. Police searched our client’s home after he mistakenly called a suicide hotline, thinking it was an emotional support hotline for veterans with PTSD. Although our client explained his mistake to the hotline operator, the operator called 911.  After going outside his apartment to talk to police, the police put our client’s hands in zip ties and took him to a hospital. Afterwards, police searched his home twice, opened locked containers, and found unregistered guns. Our client was then arrested and charged for having the guns, but the charges were dropped after another court suppressed the evidence as a result of Fourth Amendment violations. Afterwards, our client brought a civil rights lawsuit against the police officers and D.C. government. His case was dismissed by a district court because the judge held that the police had acted reasonably even without a warrant. Dissatisfied with the outcome of the case, the clinic stepped in to handle the appeal. My partner and I were assigned to the case.

courthousefrontOn appeal, we argued that the police acted unreasonably by doing the searches without a warrant and without our client’s consent. For months, my partner and I researched the D.C. Circuit’s precedent regarding similar warrantless searches. In December, we learned that our case would be argued in April. With several deadlines looming in front of us, we decided I would be doing the oral argument and began writing our first brief. In February, the D.C. government submitted their own brief, which we had two weeks to respond to in a second brief. By March, it was time to start practicing giving the argument. I poured over the hundreds of pages of the record in our case and, with the help of the other students in the clinic and professors from the law school, did multiple moot arguments. With each practice round, I got more and more confident and my answers to tricky questions got smoother and more concise.

But it didn’t really hit me that I would actually be arguing the case until the morning of April 18 in the courthouse, when I sat down at the counsel table and saw the three judges on my panel walk into the courtroom. What followed was a volley between the judges and me about the legal issues surrounding our case and the facts on the record. Before doing the argument, I was scared that I would feel too nervous to answer their tough questions. But after doing so many practice rounds, getting peppered with the judges’ questions felt less like sitting through an interrogation and more like slipping into a spirited conversation. Before I knew it, the red light in the courtroom came on, and my time was up.

Whether or not we end up winning on appeal, arguing the case was the most fulfilling part of my law school career. I got to do something that most real attorneys never get to do, and I got to do it before even graduating. It was tougher than anything I’ve done before, but I was well-prepared and learned so much. I’m so grateful that I got this opportunity, and so grateful to have been part of a law school community that was so supportive throughout the whole experience!

Read more here.

Learn more about our Student Bloggers here.

Summer at the Puller Veterans Benefits Clinic

swinkby Austin Swink, Class of 2017

This past summer, I worked at The Lewis B. Puller, Jr. Veterans Benefits Clinic at William & Mary Law School. This clinic specializes in providing pro bono legal aid to veterans. The Puller Clinic primarily focuses on the practice areas of disability compensation with the Department of Veterans Affairs and discharge upgrades with the armed services. The clinic’s reputation has grown throughout the legal community and the nation. This is well earned. The clinicians and students at the clinic work very hard to help these deserving veterans.

One of the most exciting developments at the Puller Clinic this summer was the kickoff of Military Mondays. Military Mondays is a partnership with Starbucks in which the Puller Clinic staff hold legal consultation meetings with veterans at a local Starbucks location. The veterans at these meeting make appointments to receive free legal advice regarding their disability compensation claims. More information on Military Mondays can be found here.

I have found the work at the Puller Clinic to be both personally and professionally rewarding. The veterans we work with are not new to the VA claims process. They have often endured rejection, frustration, and confusion. While the men and women at the Department of Veteran Affairs are working to help veterans, the system is in need of reform. That discussion is for another time and place, but the reality veterans face is enough to motivate law students and clinicians to take action.

The first lesson students learn at the Puller Clinic is that the men and women served at the Puller Clinic are not victims. They are hardworking men and women who spent time performing a duty that over nine in ten of us will never personally experience. They sacrificed, and the result was the endurance of the greatest nation on earth and the continued advancement of human freedom in the globe. This is no small accomplishment, and in return we owe them a great debt. That debt can never be repaid. However, by serving our veterans through programs like the Puller Clinic we can do our part to honor their service by serving them.


To learn more about our student bloggers, click here.

Law Students Arguing in the Fourth Circuit – My Experience in the Appellate & Supreme Court Clinic

sniderby Abby Snider, Class of 2016

Even though the Fall 2015 semester is just warming up, students in the W&M Appellate & Supreme Court Clinic are hard at work. The Appellate & Supreme Court Clinic provides an awesome opportunity for 3L students, as it enables them to represent clients in appellate cases. Clinic students choose cases, write motions and briefs, and even present oral arguments in Circuit Courts across the country. It is an amazing opportunity for any lawyer, let alone a third year law student, to be able to argue in front of a Circuit Court. The clinic, taught by Professor Tillman Breckenridge, focuses its attention on unique or controversial First and Fourth Amendment issues of law.

On September 16, 2015, my clinic partner, Amber Will, argued in front of the Fourth Circuit. The case she argued is about whether evidence of drugs found in our client’s car was lawfully obtained by police officers. In the weeks leading up to her argument, I helped Amber prepare her argument by talking through hypotheticals, attending moot arguments with professors who specialize in Fourth Amendment law, and making plans for us to travel to Richmond. All too quickly, it was the day of the argument.

Amber and I walked into the Fourth Circuit, nervously wandering the hallways searching for attorney check-in, where we had planned to meet Professor Breckenridge. It felt imposing (but so cool!) to be in the Circuit Court. When we checked in with the courtroom clerk, she wished Amber luck, saying “I hope you do better than the last law student who argued in my courtroom – he passed out at the podium!”

The argument scheduled before Amber’s was an immigration case, about whether an illegal immigrant should be granted asylum because he was targeted by Honduran police to be a drug runner. It was really neat to hear this argument and realize that I had a solid grasp of the issues in the case – my Immigration Law class was coming in handy. The argument raced by, and suddenly it was time for Professor Breckenridge to introduce Amber to the panel.

Amber absolutely killed her argument. She had articulate answers for every judge’s question, and they did not go easy on her. She outshone all the other lawyers that we heard argue, not only because of her solid, organized grasp of the law, but because she learned every detail of the record, down to the second the client’s traffic stop ended. Afterwards, in the Fourth Circuit, the judges come down to shake the lawyers’ hands. All the judges paused when greeting Amber, congratulated her, and emphatically told her what a great job she did. Immediately after the argument, it finally sunk in what an invaluable experience it was to get involved with appellate cases and to argue in Circuit Court. We went out for a celebratory lunch in Richmond, then drove back to Williamsburg – and straight back to classes.

Update December 15, 2015: On December 14, the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit issued a published opinion in U.S. v. Williams in favor of the appellant, represented by William & Mary Law School’s Appellate and Supreme Court Clinic. The opinion (open .pdf) was a unanimous decision, authored by Judge Robert B. King and joined by Judges Barbara Milano Keenan and Henry F. Floyd. Read the full story here.

Learn more about our Student Bloggers here.

Fellowship with Veterans Benefits Clinic

by Laura Manchester JD ’17 and Katlyn Moseley JD ’17

manchestermoseleyLaura Manchester (left) is a IL student originally from New Jersey.   Laura graduated from the University of Baltimore in 2013 with highest honors with a degree in Jurisprudence, and spent last year working and traveling before coming to William & Mary.  She is a member of the inaugural Leadership Institute and is a graduate research fellow at the Lewis B. Puller, Jr. Veterans Benefits Clinic. 

Katlyn Moseley (right) is also first-year student. Katlyn is originally from North Carolina and graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 2014 with a degree in history and political science. She is a member of William & Mary’s National Trial Team and a fellow in the Lewis B. Puller, Jr. Veterans Benefits Clinic.

The Lewis B. Puller, Jr., Veterans Benefits Clinic Fellowship initially attracted us to William and Mary Law School because it offered first year law students the opportunity to impact the lives of the community, something that many law schools reserve for second and third year students.  The Puller Clinic provides free legal services to veterans who need help filing and appealing disability claims.  Working as a fellow in the clinic has been a rewarding and educational experience that any law student would be lucky to have.

Fellows have a diverse range of responsibilities, ranging from legal research for supervising attorneys, to performing administrative tasks to help the operation run smoothly.  This past semester, we had the opportunity to sit in on veterans’ interviews and in-reach programs with supervising attorneys, help launch and contribute to the veterans benefits blog, conduct outreach efforts, and network with veterans clinics at other law schools and organizations to help improve the lives of veterans and their families.   Some unanticipated benefits of working at the Puller Clinic are the connections we have made with the supervising attorneys and other clinic students. These individuals have proven to be an exceptional resource for both of us, sharing their knowledge on everything from veterans law, navigating your first year of law school, and effectively conducting research. The students and faculty that comprise the Puller Clinic community have made this fellowship a truly amazing experience.

We encourage anyone who has an interest in the mission of the Puller Clinic, or any of William and Mary Law School’s many other clinics, to apply for a fellowship and gain the numerous benefits that come with this wonderful opportunity.

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.

Experience with the Veterans Benefits Clinic

kathleenby Kathleen Zaratzian, Class of 2016

Kathleen Zaratzian is originally from Santa Barbara, California. She earned her B.A. from U.C. Berkeley with majors in English and Environmental Policy.  She is a member of the William & Mary Law Review.  She was a member of the Lewis B. Puller Veterans Benefits Clinic during the Fall 2014 semester.  Next summer she will be interning at the California Attorney General, Department of Natural Resources.

Last fall, I participated in the Lewis B. Puller Veterans’ Benefits Clinic where I assisted veterans with their claims for disability benefits to the Department of Veterans Affairs through various stages of the appeals process.  Most of my clients were injured during their military service, and since leaving the military, they developed medical conditions secondary to their service injury. By law, this justified disability benefits, but they were denied compensation.

I knew going into law school that I wanted the experience of working in a clinic.  I wanted to do this for all of the obvious reasons – it looks great on a resume, teaches you practical legal skills, and is a welcome break from traditional law school classes.  Although I didn’t know much about the Puller Clinic going into it, I had heard nothing but glowing reviews from former students.  After my experience, I am very happy to have had the opportunity and found it to be the most rewarding experience in law school so far.  I recommend, without any reservations, participating in the Puller Clinic.

I have no military experience myself or in my immediate family, although I have many friends and classmates at William & Mary Law School who do.  However, I like helping people.  That’s one of the reasons that I came to law school.  My work was even more rewarding since everything I did during the semester pushed a veteran’s case closer to receiving the amount of disability benefits that he/she is entitled to and helped each veteran navigate a difficult and confusing process.

veterans2During the semester, I oversaw three clients’ cases independently and shared another with a partner.  We worked mostly independently on our cases, but we met weekly with the supervising attorney, Professor Aniela Szymanski, to develop our case strategies and identify legal issues.  Each week during class, a set of partners presented problematic cases to brainstorm and problem solve as a firm.  The substantive work included: interviewing and communicating with clients, writing letters and briefs to the VA,  reviewing and analyzing medical and military personnel records, and researching veterans’ law issues.

What stands out the most about my experience in the Puller Clinic are the relationships that I built with my clients during the semester.  Although a semester is a short period of time, we developed strong relationships by working closely with our clients on very personal issues such as traumatic events, physical and psychological conditions, and financial hardship.  In the face of an incredibly frustrating and drawn-out bureaucratic process, the clients I worked with carried themselves with incredible graciousness and integrity.  I was constantly impressed by their optimism and gratitude for everything I did, even on claims that have been pending for many years.

veteransAnother great experience with the Puller Clinic was an in-reach program held on Veterans’ Day.  Each student in the clinic was assigned two veterans, and we reviewed their documents. Next, a team, composed of an attorney and two students, met with the each veteran for about an hour.  This was a fantastic opportunity to give back to the veterans in our community on Veterans’ Day.

Whether or not you have experience in Veterans Law or an interest in practicing it in the future, the Puller Clinic is a very rewarding experience for anyone who enjoys using their legal training to advocate for people and help them get what they deserve but don’t have the resources to fight for on their own.

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.

Experiences with the Family Law Clinic

Raffaeleby Nick Raffaele, Class of 2015

Nick Raffaele is originally from Clearwater, Florida. He earned his B.B.A. from the University of Miami in 2012 with majors in Political Science and Business Law. After graduating and sitting for the bar exam, Nick will be joining Phillips and Peters, PLLC to practice family law in Norfolk, Virginia.

Students looking to gain hands on experience in the legal field of their choice should look no further than William and Mary Law School’s Clinic program. As someone involved in domestic law, W&M actually offers two clinics directly related to my interests: the Family Law Clinic and the Domestic Violence Clinic. I began my Clinic career by enrolling in the Family Law Clinic for the fall 2014 semester, and the experience and networking I gained have proven invaluable. Of course, getting course credit in the process is quite convenient.

My supervisor at the family law clinic was Darryl W. Cunningham, Esq., and we worked out of the Williamsburg office for the Legal Aid Society of Eastern Virginia. He was a fantastic mentor, who was clearly passionate about his work and always seemed enthusiastic to teach his profession to his students. The Clinic experience was a perfect blend of independent exposure to and measured instruction in case management, client service, and litigation strategy. Each student was given about three files to manage, and we all met once a week to discuss our cases and give each other advice on how to proceed. Mr. Cunningham would also give lessons on different aspects of family law each week, such as the stages of a divorce lawsuit, the principles that govern custody/visitation disputes, and calculating child support.

The clinic was a fantastic opportunity to step away from the doctrinal aspect of legal education and gain truly practical experience. Throughout the course of the semester, we had chances to appear in court using Virginia’s Third-Year Practice Certificate. We also spent plenty of time meeting with clients, drafting pleadings, and communicating with opposing counsel. In fact, networking opportunities presented by the Clinic led to my offer of employment after graduation. I am very much looking forward to working with Mr. Cunningham again during the spring 2015 semester as part of the Domestic Violence Clinic.

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.

Read about Nick’s 2013 summer work here.

Puller Veterans Benefits Clinic

Yakubisinby Chris Yakubisin, Class of 2016

Originally from Pittsburgh, PA, Chris graduated from Duquesne University with a B.A. in journalism. He is currently a staff member of the William & Mary Bill of Rights Journal and works as a Graduate Research Fellow at the Law School.

During my first week of law school classes, my criminal law professor cautioned the class not to forget that the people we read about in our casebooks are real people. It is important to remember this for many reasons, but I feel that my professor’s comment was meant to serve as a reminder that an attorney must do more than know the law.

Indeed an attorney’s responsibilities are many and each contributes in some way to the inevitable moments of panic that all law students face. While the most obvious and well-known contributor to these “panics” is knowledge of the law (certainly everyone has some anxiety before exams), perhaps the lesser known responsibilities are the most important. Attorneys must have empathy for their clients, be reliable and organized, and be an effective communicator and advocate. In order to make it through law school, all law students will learn to be organized, they will learn to write, and they will learn at least some kind of responsibility.

However, it is possible to go through law school with very little interaction with clients, or little time keeping experience. To put it another way, opportunities to develop your practical skills may not be easy to come by in a casebook. This is not what I was thinking of when I the enrolled in the Puller Veterans Benefits Clinic, though. I knew the Clinic was the first such program to be certified by the Department of Veteran’s affairs, and I knew I would have the opportunity to work with veterans, but I didn’t know that I would have the chance to develop such a wide variety of legal skills by participating in the program.

Students in the Clinic were grouped into teams of two, and each team was responsible for six clients. Since each client is unique, every student experienced the Clinic’s work in a unique way; however, certain things were the same for all of the teams. For example, each team had to communicate with their clients regularly, gather and organize records, account for their time spent doing work for clients, and interview a new client.

The basic things like keeping time helped develop practical skills throughout the semester, and it wasn’t always easy to account for time, but doing these necessary and perhaps tedious tasks were worth it to be able to participate in such a rewarding program.

Sometimes while doing hours of reading about federal income tax, or civil procedure, one can forget about why they want a law degree, or how a lawyer can help people. Being able to spend a few hours each week working for real people, really helping them, was extremely rewarding. Being able to do real legal work, rather than simply read about it was something I looked forward to doing outside of class. Rather than having to wait until the end of the semester to get a grade and see how much you learned, the clinic offered many successes throughout the semester.

While the claims process for veteran’s benefits claims is slow and complicated, small victories were possible throughout the semester. Thinking about them now, it seems silly that things like adding a dependent to a claim, or retrieving records form the VA are “victories,” but in the world of veteran’s benefits, even a menial administrative task can be difficult to accomplish. Often veterans are told that such things can take up to nine months, so, when you get it done in a couple weeks, you feel like you’ve really accomplished something.

Looking back now, though, I don’t think about the innumerable phone calls, e-mails, and letters involved in the process. Rather, I think about the people I’ve helped and the impact working with the clinic has had on my life, and now, when I find myself dwelling in a moment of panic I can take some comfort in knowing that I’m already well on my way to being a practicing attorney, I’ve already got some experience helping people.

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.

Experiences with the Coastal Policy Clinic

forrestby Jeremy Forrest, Class of 2015

Jeremy is is third-year student from Newport News, VA. He is a 2008 graduate of Hampden-Sydney College.

I knew as a 1L that I wanted to be a part of the Virginia Coastal Policy Clinic after reading about the clinic’s mission and talking to 2Ls and 3Ls about their work with the Clinic. Growing up along Virginia’s coast, I experienced firsthand the exact issues the Clinic addresses. I look forward to the opportunity to investigate difficult problems that have no easy solution.

The Clinic Director, Roy Hoagland, brought a wealth of knowledge to the clinic. Almost every week the clinic hosted a guest speaker who was part of the frontlines of creating and enforcing environmental policy in Virginia’s Chesapeake region. These speakers included state government officials, an EPA scientist, private attorneys, grantmakers, and a former legislator who championed much of Virginia’s environmental legislation over the past 30 years.

The past semester’s work was highlighted by the Clinic’s involvement with the Governor’s Commission on Climate Change. In September, the members of the Clinic attended the first meeting of the Commission at the Capitol in Richmond. Afterwards, we were able to attend a reception and meet with both Governor McAulliffe and the Secretary of Natural Resources (and W&M Law Alum) Molly Ward.

coastal policy

In early December, the Clinic hosted the second meeting of the Commission in Williamsburg. The Clinic organized a series of speakers including the head of the Norfolk Division of the Army Corps of Engineers, VIMS scientists, and Senator Kaine.

In addition to the Clinic’s work with the Commission, each member of the Clinic worked on projects individually. The focus of each of our projects was on exploring a discrete scientific issue and addressing how the issue could impact public policy. Some examples include the potential for governmental liability for failing to address the impacts of sea level rise; the effect of sea level rise on the efforts to measure Chesapeake Bay cleanup efforts; and providing assistance to an effort to coordinate the region’s sea level rise adaptation efforts.

The Virginia Coastal Policy Clinic provides students with an experience of the kind of work environmental lawyers do on a daily basis. While most people think that the law is about going to court or drafting contracts, the Clinic shows the value of lawyering in the context of guiding public policy .

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.

Top Ten Lessons Learned in the Appellate Clinic

by Claire Wheeler JD ’15 and Danny Yates JD ’15 

Danny Yates is a 3L from Richmond, VA. He attended William & Mary for undergrad, and next year Danny will be clerking for Chief Justice Donald W. Lemons on the Supreme Court of Virginia.  Afterward, he will working at a large law firm in Richmond.

Claire Wheeler is from Silver Spring, Maryland. She earned her B.A. from Harvard College. In addition to being a member of the Appellate & Supreme Court Clinic, Claire is a member of the Public Service Fund Board, the Alternative Dispute Resolution competitive team, Environmental Law & Policy Review, and has served on both the Executive Board and as Chair of Undergraduate Recruitment for the Black Law Student Association. Claire will begin working as an Associate at Venable LLP in Washington, DC in the fall of 2015.  

wheeler yatesWe first heard about the William & Mary Appellate Clinic last year when a friend from the 3L class said that she would be arguing before the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit.  Oral argument before a three-judge panel of federal appellate judges is an experience that only a small handful of litigators enjoy, and is an even rarer occurrence for law students.  After observing intense oral arguments before a panel of Fourth Circuit judges in William & Mary’s McGlothlin Courtroom, we found the opportunities the Clinic provides to be even more enticing (and slightly terrifying).  A few months later, we were impressed upon discovering that the Fourth Circuit panel unanimously agreed with our friend–and the Clinic had won its appeal!

The Appellate and Supreme Court Clinic is one of nine clinical programs offered at William & Mary Law School.  These clinics allow law students, under the supervision of practicing attorneys, to represent real clients in legal disputes involving everything from veterans’ benefits to coastal policy to domestic violence.  Specifically, the Appellate Clinic provides pro bono representation in federal courts of appeals and before the Supreme Court.  Our cases typically address constitutional questions and our clients have ranged from convicted felons to small business owners.

The past two and a half years at W&M Law have been a constant cycle of reading cases, analyzing statutes, and discussing policy issues.  However, the Appellate Clinic has revealed to us what it really means to be a good lawyer.  As members of the Clinic, we’ve had the opportunity to learn the basics of appellate advocacy as well as the intricacies involved in representing clients on appeal.  From teamwork, to brief writing, to mooting for oral argument, we could not imagine better preparation as we move closer to trading in our backpacks for briefcases.

Below are the top ten lessons learned in the Appellate Clinic:

10. When drafting a brief, headings are extremely important.

Although it may be hard to believe, judges, just like law students, sometime resort to skimming a brief.

9. Put two spaces after every period.

We must admit that we are not sure whether there should be one or two spaces following a period at the end of a sentence; however, under the guidance and instruction of our professor, Tillman J. Breckenridge, an expert appellate lawyer at the international law firm of Reed Smith LLP, the answer is always put two spaces.

8. Do not use the phrase “begs the question” unless the point you are making actually raises a question.

This may be just another “pet-peeve” of our professor, but his underlying message is to write in a clear and concise manner.  Lawyers have a tendency to be verbose, and Professor Breckenridge is conscientiously making us more persuasive writers.

7. The statement of facts is the most critical section of any appellate brief.

It’s human nature to want to know who should win right off the bat, and it’s easier to win hearts if you’ve already won judges’ minds.

6. Technology is supposed to make our lives easier, but somehow brief writing is never complete without formatting issues and computer glitches.

We have encountered our fair share of “technical difficulties” over the past few months as we worked to draft briefs, respond to motions, and compile appendices.  Often we found that formatting can be the most time-consuming aspect of the brief-writing process.  Nothing is more frustrating than spending hours working away on filing just to have your word processor freeze up and cause you to lose everything!  Both of our computers have crashed at various points in the past few months–making us true believers in the saying that you should always “back up your back up.”

5. It is “darn near impossible to win a case at oral argument, but it is easy to lose one.”

In class, we regularly listen to and critique oral arguments with the goal of improving our own oral advocacy skills.  Professor Breckenridge taught us that oral argument is not something to just “get through.”  Rather, use your few minutes at the podium to “move the ball forward.”  Oral argument requires extensive preparation.  You must know the record cold, and you must try to anticipate every question the judges might ask.  At the end of the day, appellate advocates often describe three arguments: the argument you plan to make, the argument you actually made, and the argument you wished you made.  However, the most important thing to remember is to answer questions clearly, honestly, and with a thought as to how our case fits into the overarching law.

4. Sometimes your client can make your job a lot tougher.

Sometimes clients can be demanding or have unrealistic expectations.  We’ve learned that it helps to put yourself in their shoes, and to strive to communicate clearly.

3. Cooperation and teamwork are best for your client and your sanity.

Although our workload for the Clinic can be intense, we are fortunate to be paired with terrific partners.  Unlike most other law school classes where group work is virtually nonexistent, the Clinic relies on a team-oriented structure.  We are eight third-year students, paired into four sets of partners.  We comb through federal dockets for cases presenting constitutional issues or civil rights violations, and then decide as a group which ones to take on.  Casework is divided among the partner groups, and all brief writing is a two-person effort.  Teamwork is an integral part of our daily work in the Clinic, and it demands flexibility in accommodating different stylistic preferences, organizational methods, and personalities.

2. Credibility is your most important tool as a lawyer.

You spend years building it, but it can be lost very easily.  In just a few short months, Professor Breckenridge has taught us many nuances of appellate advocacy–from brief writing techniques to oral argument advice to general practice tips through his weekly “musings on professionalism.”  However, the advice always comes back to the importance of credibility and character.

1. If you don’t enjoy the work you’re doing, you’ll burn out quickly.

At times, our participation in the Clinic has required us to burn the midnight oil and make some sacrifices.  We spent part of Thanksgiving Break compiling a brief on the merits of a client’s First Amendment challenge to alcohol advertising regulations.  Additionally, on the first day of Christmas break, the two of us drafted an emergency motion in a federal criminal case involving an illegal search and seizure.


Nonetheless, these experiences have sharpened our time management skills.  As Professor Breckenridge constantly reminds us, “once you graduate and start practicing, you will never again have as much free time as you did in law school.”  As we head into the new year, and our final semester of law school, we are thrilled to continue with the Clinic.  We look forward to putting into practice many of the skills we have learned over the past six months as we zealously represent future clients.

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.

Experience with the Domestic Violence Clinic

askrenby Jill Askren, Class of 2015

Jill Askren is originally from Vero Beach, Florida. She earned her B.A. from the University of Central Florida, double majoring in Political Science and Economics. As a 3L, she serves as a Lead Articles Editor for the William and Mary Law Review and as the Scholarly Series Coordinator for the Institute of Bill of Rights Law: Student Division. 

I had the opportunity to participate in the Domestic Violence Clinic during my 3L fall semester. This was a great experience as the clinic gave me a chance to work with actual clients, not just the hypothetical clients used in law school courses. The clinic’s focus was on advocating for protective orders for individuals through the Legal Aid Society of Eastern Virginia. We started the semester by learning more about domestic violence and how it is such a widespread problem. A representative from a local domestic violence center then came and talked to us about the best ways to interact with clients and how to understand their situations.  We also practiced conducting client interviews and cross-examinations so that we would be prepared when we received our cases.

The matter to which I was assigned involved cyberstalking. I met with the client and with my clinic advisor to discuss the issues and come up with questions along with opening and closing statements. When I got to court, I was a little nervous because I had never before presented a case to a judge. But once I got started, it got easier, and the client received the protective order. The other students in the clinic worked on cases involving a range of domestic violence issues, and we were given the opportunity to share our experiences at the end of the semester and learn about each other’s work.

I am grateful that William and Mary offers students the chance to participate in clinics. In my past internships and externships, I had not been so involved in a case from start to finish. Plus, with my Third-Year Practice Certificate, I was able to question witnesses and give statements in court. But beyond the practical experience, clinics allow students to examine societal issues and work to help those in our local community.  These are all valuable skills for when we start practicing law. My only regret is that I will not be able to see how the clinic grows next year now that it has received a grant from the Department of Justice to expand its reach.

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.

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.