The Law School Magazine  ·  Winter 2013 : Features

Reinventing the clerkship: Model expanding the traditional judicial clerkship could be next trend

By - Winter 2013
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Responding to a fundamental shift in the legal job market for new lawyers, The Ohio State University Moritz College of Law has developed various public interest and private sector fellowships to provide high-caliber graduates with a unique opportunity to gain the one thing employers seek now more than ever: experience.

A legal education provides crucial training and the foundation for one’s career, explained Dean Alan C. Michaels, the Edwin M. Cooperman Professor of Law, but the market increasingly is demanding post-graduate experience and training serving clients. “It’s become apparent that the future increasingly will include a bridge between law school graduation and the long-term job in the profession that consists of an elite, termed training experience,” he said.

Medical residencies and judicial clerkships fit this model, providing new graduates hands-on training experience and a salary in return for their excellent work. The market will flock to law graduates with this kind of experience, and Moritz is establishing a trend by applying the model in a variety of areas, from corporations’ general counsel offices to federal bankruptcy court.

The first fellowship program model at Moritz emerged from discussions between Michaels and the general counsels of three well-known companies. The Moritz Corporate Fellowship Program, which just launched in 2011, already has grown into a robust program with more than 20 corporate partners. Using the judicial clerkship as a model, fellows are placed within the general counsel’s office of major corporations – jobs that normally are not open to new lawyers – where they learn firsthand how businesses use legal services. The companies benefit from the fellow’s training and hard work, and, in exchange, impart valuable experience and provide mentoring and a salary.

“The vision was for a cutting-edge program that  would be the first of its kind, providing a unique post-graduate experience that would be tremendously valuable to the people involved that would continue and grow,” Michaels said. “We weren’t just trying to get a graduate a job at Nationwide.”

Yet, the program has resulted in actual jobs. The inaugural group of graduates had a 100 percent job placement rate at the end of their fellowships, either with the same company or another legal employer that valued the rare experience the fellow received through the program. In announcing that Joel Lund ’11 had joined Vorys, Sater, Seymour, and Pease LLP, for example, the firm touted his legal fellowship experience with Fifth Third Bancorp in Cincinnati.

Michaels explained that the fellowship program was a natural progression in the College’s efforts to develop more practical experience opportunities for students and graduates, such as the popular Capstone Courses taught by leading practitioners. Other law schools, including those consistently ranked in the top 10 and 25 nationally, have reached out to the College for assistance in developing post-graduate programs similar to the Moritz Corporate Fellowship Program, he said.

Following that success, other opportunities to apply the fellowship model presented themselves with the Wrongful Conviction Project at the Office of the Ohio Public Defender, in pro bono bankruptcy work with the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Ohio, and the Fellowship Program in Public Service Law.

“On the public interest side, there are a lot of people who want to encourage new lawyers to go into the field for worthy, altruistic reasons,” Michaels said. “The best way to encourage a new lawyer to go into a field is to give them a start.”

The Reinberger Foundation invested in the College’s Fellowship Program in Public Service Law, providing funding for one post-graduate fellowship as a prosecutor and four internships for current students who would go to work in prosecution offices.  Zoe Lamberson ’12, the first fellow, is expected to handle 100 to 200 cases during the course of her fellowship with the Fairfield County Prosecutor’s Office.

In her first three months, Lamberson assisted in drafting a brief to the Ohio Supreme Court, prepared presentations for visual aid in jury trials, completed discovery requests, conducted oral hearings for motions to suppress evidence, and conducted a civil hearing in municipal court regarding a dangerous dog designation appeal, which essentially was a minitrial.

“She has truly been a great asset … and has gained practical experience from her short time in our office,” Prosecutor Gregg Marx ’79 wrote in an early evaluation of the program. “In my opinion, she will be able to provide quality assistance to a county prosecutor’s office. I believe she has a bright future as an assistant prosecutor.”

Work with life-changing impact

As media seized upon stories in which the Innocence Project exonerated wrongfully convicted people through DNA testing, Moritz alumni in Ohio diligently pursued appeals on behalf of those for whom DNA evidence does not exist.

The Wrongful Conviction Project is the state’s first program to focus exclusively on wrongful conviction claims in non-life-sentence cases. Launched in 2009 by Kelly Schneider ’96, the program is run by the Office of the Ohio Public Defender for inmates whose cases meet seven criteria:

  • The inmate must be indigent.
  • The inmate claims factual innocence of the convictions.
  • The inmate did not contribute in any way to the commission of the offense.
  • The inmate is serving a lengthy prison sentence.
  • The inmate has no prior history of violent crimes or lengthy criminal record.
  • The basis for claimed innocence is not outcome-determinative as to DNA evidence.
  • The inmate has exhausted the legal process.

Joe Bodenhamer, director of the Wrongful Conviction Project, explained that evidence commonly relied upon at trials – including eyewitness misidentification, invalid forensic evidence, false confessions, and incriminating statements – can be unreliable and lead to an innocent person’s incarceration. To date, there have been nearly 300 post-conviction exonerations in the United States, he said.

“Flawed evidence is not unique to cases in which DNA contributes to exoneration — it is evidence commonly used in criminal cases. Thus, a need exists to examine cases in which DNA is not available to determine whether flawed evidence has resulted in wrongful convictions,” Bodenhamer said.

Two Moritz graduates have had an opportunity to serve that need as fellows of the Wrongful Conviction Project thanks to a fellowship program created by Erin Moriarty ’77, a journalist with CBS News who has covered stories about innocent people locked in prison for crimes they did not commit. She hopes others contribute to the fund so that the work can continue.

“I can find new evidence as a reporter, but someone has to file the motion to get the person out. These fellowships are crucial to get lawyers who not only know how to do appeals but know how to do them properly,” Moriarty said.

Fellow Leon Sinoff ’10, for example, identified cases with challenges to the reliability of evidence, including arson science and shaken baby syndrome. His acquired knowledge of the medical challenges to the traditional theory of shaken baby syndrome allowed him to co-counsel a trial-level case with a senior public defender, Bodenhamer said. Sinoff identified the proper defense expert witness, fully participated in trial preparation, and cross-examined a state’s witness during trial. The defendant in that case was acquitted.

While the fellowship provided Sinoff with the opportunity to invest himself in extremely meaningful work and further his understanding of criminal law, he also viewed the fellowship as a conduit for “tremendous positive change in Ohio … remedying life-altering errors one at a time.” Today, he works in the Ohio Public Defender’s legal division on appellate and post-conviction criminal matters.

“The Wrongful Conviction Project fellowship is enabling the building of a legal system that stands for the principles that justice must ultimately prevail and that the lives of individual citizens matter,” he said.

As an undergraduate at Ohio University, Joanna Feigenbaum ’11 became aware of the growing problem of wrongful convictions in her social sciences studies. She entered law school with hopes of helping those wrongfully incarcerated and contributing to systemic changes that would prevent innocent people from being convicted in the future.

She is the longest-tenured member of the Wrongful Conviction Project, having started as a law clerk shortly after the program’s creation in 2009, Bodenhamer said. “The meritorious claims that she identified early on in her service now are the lead focus of the project,” he said. “One of these claims currently is being litigated for exoneration by her and a veteran OPD staff attorney.”

Feigenbaum believes everyone should have an interest in strengthening the criminal justice system and taking steps to enhance accuracy and fairness throughout.

“As a fellow with the Wrongful Conviction Project, I feel as though I am working toward that objective every day,” she said. “Further, I feel proud knowing that the work I do may result in grave injustices being corrected and innocent people being returned to their lives and families.”

The fellowship also allowed Feigenbaum to practice law immediately upon passage of the Ohio Bar Exam. She has gained invaluable experience interacting with other attorneys, the courts, clients, and witnesses. “These experiences have enhanced my competency and confidence as a new attorney immensely,” she said.

Bankruptcy program created

Melissa Baker Linville ’11 was drawn to public interest law and had experience working for the Legal Aid Society of Columbus prior to graduating from law school. After graduation, she worked part-time for the Franklin County Public Defender’s Office and conducted legal research for solo practitioners. When a member of the Career Services Office at Moritz shared information about a new United States Bankruptcy Court Pro Bono Project Fellowship, Linville wasn’t sure it would be an exact fit.

“I hadn’t taken any bankruptcy courses before,” she said, “but I really liked the idea of implementing a pro bono program and working closely with legal aid and attorneys interested in volunteering their services.”

The three-part pro bono program received support from bankruptcy court judges in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Ohio. They saw an immense need for legal services in the wake of the economic recession and subsequent rise in joblessness.

The program focuses on three areas: a Chapter 7 referral program for low-income clients; providing brief counsel to pro se debtors prior to their appearance at monthly hearings; and creating a training program for lawyers without bankruptcy experience to represent clients in adversary proceedings.

With little experience in bankruptcy herself, Linville studied everything she could find on that area of law and attended proceedings with the Honorable John E. Hoffman Jr. “Judge Hoffman has been a great instructor in the ways of bankruptcy and has helped me to understand what bankruptcy procedure is all about,” Linville said. “I also shadowed different attorneys and trustees early on.”

In its first six months, the Chapter 7 referral program recruited about 50 volunteer attorneys who began handling more than 100 client referrals from Southeastern Ohio Legal Services and the Legal Aid Society of Columbus. In August, Linville was thrilled to report that of the 20 cases filed already, 12 were discharged. She hoped to gain even more ground in the fall, when students from Moritz and Capital University Law School would join the effort to guide clients in the process of collecting the overwhelming amount of documentation needed. “Hopefully it will save the attorney one meeting, and the students will gain experience with client interviewing,” Linville said. “In law school, I always liked any opportunity to do something real.”

When her fellowship ends in February, Linville is confident that the experience will enable her to find work in more places. The new lawyer who lacked bankruptcy experience before is now more experienced in its nuances. “I definitely am interested in practicing bankruptcy law. I was only interested in public interest opportunities before and didn’t have experiences that translated to firms very well,” she said. “I’m excited to have a skill that I can relate to the public and private sectors.”

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