Brooklyn Law School sets standard for prosecutorial clinics

October 18, 2012 By Charisma L. Miller, Esq. Brooklyn Daily Eagle
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A recent New York Law Journal article lauded New York Law School’s collaboration with the Manhattan District Attorney’s office in the formation of a new prosecution clinic.

The yearlong clinical program, which begins in the fall of 2013, will allow students to prosecute non-violent misdemeanors and violations in the Manhattan Criminal Court.

Prosecution clinics may be new to New York Law School, but Brooklyn Law School has been a pioneer in this field for many years. Brooklyn Law School Professor Lisa Smith, director of BLS’s prosecution clinic, spoke with the Brooklyn Daily Eagle about the role of prosecutorial clinics in general and the specific focus of BLS’s current prosecution clinic.

Brooklyn Daily Eagle: Good morning, Professor Smith.

Prof. Lisa Smith: Good morning.

BDE: Thank you for taking the time to speak about prosecution clinics. Before we get started, please give us an overview of what law school clinics are.

LS: Absolutely.  There are different ways for law school students to obtain practical hands-on experience through clinics. Generally, there are three types of clinics: externships, in-house clinics, and hybrid clinics.  With externship programs, students are sent out to work for other lawyers in the court system, at criminal justice agencies and in civil practice organizations. The students work for other attorneys and these attorneys serve as supervisors to the students.

In the converse, faculty members teach in-house clinics. Prosecution clinics are an example of an in-house clinic. The prosecution clinic at BLS is very old. It has been around since, I believe the 1980s; it may in fact be the first law school prosecution clinic in New York City. In the prosecution clinic, students work as student assistant district attorneys under a professor’s supervision. The difference between this an and externship at, say, the District Attorney’s office, is that in an externship program, an assistant district attorney is responsible for the students. The ADA gives the student tasks and evaluates a student’s performance. In an in-house clinic, the student is the ADA under a professor’s supervision. In an in-house clinic the student has to figure out the issues, decide the how to investigate the case, and ultimately assist at trial.

The third type of clinic is a hybrid clinic. Here students, are the “lawyers” on the case, but a full-time faculty member is not supervising them.

BDE: Tell us a bit more about the prosecution clinic at BLS.

LS: I supervise the clinic and over the years we have had a lot of variations and a lot of flexibility. One year we worked exclusively on domestic violence cases.

BDE: Is there a focus for this year’s clinic?

LS: This year we are going to have a community prosecution clinic focused on misdemeanor crimes.

BDE: Community prosecution clinic?

LS: Yes, we are going to focus on one particular community in Brooklyn and address the misdemeanor crimes affecting that community. We have decided to look at misdemeanor crimes, so that the students gain a better understanding of the purpose of misdemeanor prosecutions and how misdemeanor crimes affect communities. When it comes to misdemeanors, it often difficult to understand why someone may be prosecuted for spraying graffiti on a gate, for example. When looked at through a community lens, students will be able to see how graffiti impacts a sense of order in a neighborhood.

BDE: Which Brooklyn community will you focus on?

LS: Sunset Park.

BDE: Why Sunset Park?

LS: I thought Sunset Park would be practical due to its close proximity to the law school. I also think that Sunset Park is an interesting place to work. There is a large Mexican and Asian immigrant community in this part of Brooklyn. Sunset Park has a very vibrant business district and the access to social service providers is manifold. Sunset Park is a community that is diverse ethnically, diverse architecturally, and diverse on socio-economic grounds as well.

BDE: In what ways will the law school students be involved directly with the Sunset Park community?

LS:    The students will attend community board meetings. The community board has many different sub-committees and the students will each join a sub-committee because I want them to get a sense of the real concerns of the community.  Recently the students sat down with Sunset Park’s Business Improvement District. Going back to the graffiti example, a student may look at graffiti case and think “no big deal,” but when they listen to a business owner describe how the presence of graffiti affects a customer’s decision not to shop on a particular block, the purpose of misdemeanor prosecutions starts to make sense. The students will also participate at Career Day at the new high school in Sunset Park.

BDE: What do you hope your law school students will take away from this clinic?

LS: I want them to think about what they are doing. I want them as new lawyers to not only understand the law but rather to understand why they are doing what they are doing and who they are doing it for. I want them to ask: `how do my actions as a lawyer affect this community?’ I hope that when they look at a case file, they see more than just a set of papers. I want the file to come to life.

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