Five 2012 Grads Join Massachusetts’ Public Defender Organization
Students credit BU Law’s criminal law clinic for preparing them for work in public defense
Five members of the Class of 2012 who participated in the Criminal Law Clinic as students now have something else in common: Tabitha Bolden, Libby Hugetz, Paul Shapiro, Meredith Shih and Maura Tansley were hired by the Committee for Public Counsel Services (CPCS), Massachusetts’ public defender organization.
“They know our students are prepared,” says Clinical Associate Professor of Law Wendy Kaplan, who is not surprised a number of her former students were hired by the organization. “A lot of the CPCS attorneys are in the district courts, so they see our students get up, do battle with prosecutors, judges or the probation officers, and they know they’re advocating. And I think that our students feel well prepared to go to CPCS and to handle district court cases.”
That preparedness is a refined outcome of a dedicated faculty of experienced practitioners teaching a practical curriculum designed to give students a thorough understanding of criminal law procedures.
“We are very invested in the kind of education we are giving our students,” says Kaplan. “Among the faculty, it’s collegial in the sense that we are constantly reviewing and trying to refine the lessons that we teach.”
The two-semester clinic combines a classroom element—which exposes students to everything from complaint papers and probation records to trial strategies and client interviews—with increasing responsibility in real cases in Municipal Boston Court, Juvenile Boston Court or Quincy District Court. As students’ trials unfold in the courtroom, lessons in the clinic coincide and equip them for the next stages.
“We take our students step by step through the process,” says Kaplan. “Of course the challenge is always to stay ahead of them so that they know what they’re going to be doing the next time they come into court.”
“You learn all of the intricacies and details of dealing with people in an adversarial system, which you don’t get in a normal classroom setting,” says Shih. “It’s definitely a little bit trial-by-fire, but I think it’s a great feeling,”
Once they choose to follow either the prosecutor or defense path, students operate under close faculty supervision—as few as five students per advisor—to develop the core competencies necessary to handle their assigned cases. They work through many hours of both practice and actual proceedings: simulating bail exercises, developing a powerful narrative for a trial, and interviewing clients at various stages in the arraignment process.
“It’s like a family,” says Hugetz. “Wendy was definitely our second mother during that whole semester, which you need. The staff and the supervision you receive is excellent.”
Tansley notes, “I can say without a doubt that I wouldn’t be here in this job that I love if it weren’t for the support and the dedication and the confidence that the clinic faculty gave me—from teaching me how to interact with my clients better to how to approach my cases.”
After a year of experience under their belts, clinic graduates have handled up to a dozen different cases. They have gained valuable lawyering skills, from developing a case to presenting it in court. And most of all, they feel confident applying their knowledge of the legal system to the representation of real clients. It’s a critical experience for up-and-coming advocates of any kind to achieve.
“We provide a solid foundation, a good experience for them, so that when they go to CPCS they are not confounded or overwhelmed because they’ve seen it before,” says Kaplan. “And it’s the same if they went to DC or Miami or New York Legal Aid—wherever they go they’ve got this set of tools they bring with them, and they’re able to unwrap them at the right time. And they have that confidence, the authority to know that they can walk into any courtroom… Because if you can make it in the Boston Municipal Court and the Boston Juvenile Court, you’re going to be fine pretty much anywhere you go.”
Q&A with Tabitha Bolden ('12), staff attorney, CPCS Quincy
Why did you decide to take the criminal law clinic?
I knew going into BU that I was interested in criminal law and the criminal clinic. I had heard great things about it and knew that it would be the best way to build practical skills. I signed up as soon as I could, and I still remember how excited I was to learn at the end of 1L year that I would have a spot beginning 2L spring. I had somewhat of a difficult 2L year personally, but it was the thought of the criminal clinic beginning that kept me coming back each semester.
What surprised you most about your clinical experience?
I think the thing that surprised me most was how different a case could go depending simply on which judge you were in front of on a given day or which DA you were dealing with. We would constantly see very similar cases that ended with very different results due to a given judge's temper or the flexibility of a given DA, which at first struck a lot of us as very unjust. So it was an adjustment in our thinking.
What did you enjoy most?
I think that the thing that I enjoyed most was the camaraderie between fellow clinic members and myself. It was amazing how close we all became, and it was so helpful to be able to conference cases with each other, even between the defense and prosecution attorneys, and I believe we learned just as much from each other as we did from our supervisors and our clients.
How would you define the atmosphere of the clinic, in terms of faculty support and fellow student collegiality?
The faculty support was excellent throughout the clinic. I always felt comfortable to go to any of the supervisors and not just my own. Overall, with both faculty and my fellow students, we had fantastic collegiality. I made some of my best friends from law school in the clinic, and those relationships continue to be some of my closest friendships. I continue to maintain contact with many of the students and faculty.
How have your clinical experiences impacted your work with CPCS?
My experiences in the clinic enabled me to hit the ground running. Many of the skills that we were taught and practiced during our CPCS training I had already learned and experienced thanks to the clinic. And I doubt that I would have had the same level of comfort dealing with clients that I have now if I had not had the client contact in the clinic.
In your current role, do you rely on or have any of the skills or experiences you had within the clinic been useful?
The most important part of the clinic for me was getting used to presenting arguments in court—that has been invaluable in my current position because I have been comfortable from the start making standard arguments and interacting with DAs, judges and clients. Although each court is different, I think that it was much easier for me to adjust because I was so used to the basics from our work in the clinic, and I could be confident in my abilities.
Anything else you wish to add?
I think that the criminal clinic at BU Law is a fantastic experience that any current student would be lucky to have. No matter the person's intended career path, the skills that you gather with writing, public speaking and, most importantly, client contact would be an invaluable asset in any job. Without question the criminal clinic was the best thing about law school for me, and I always look back on it fondly.