Commonwealth’s Attorney

We continue our look at our third year curriculum’s actual practice requirement with a post from Suzanne Peters. Suzanne participated in our Public Prosecutors program last semester, working in the Commonwealth’s Attorney’s office in Lexington. On our website, this program is described as follows:

“Selected students are placed with the United States Attorney’s Office for the Western District of Virginia, headquartered in Roanoke with staffed offices in Charlottesville and Abingdon. The district has seven divisions of federal court, one of only four districts nationwide with as many divisions. Seven percent of the district’s land is national park or forest, including the Shenandoah National Park and the Blue Ridge Parkway. Students are also placed in offices of the Commonwealth Attorneys for the counties of Rockbridge, Allegheny, Botetourt, Roanoke, and the cities of Roanoke and Buena Vista.

These offices enjoy active law student intern programs. During the academic year, twelve third-year W&L law students work in the prosecutor’s office for the equivalent of one day each week. Intern projects include legal research and writing assignments in addition to participation in witness interviews, meetings with law enforcement personnel, trial preparation, and courtroom proceedings. Students who have satisfied the requirements of the Virginia State Bar Third Year Practice Rule are given the opportunity to participate in a trial. An effort is made to give each student projects representing different areas of the office’s work.”

Here is a post Suzanne wrote towards the end of her externship:

“Go ahead and look through the files for this week and pick out the cases you want to do.”  My supervisor at the Commonwealth Attorney’s office tells me to do this every week.  And every week, as I read through the files, I think to myself, “Wow, this is awesome.”  And that is what I repeatedly think at my externship.  After all, what other third year law student can say that they get to try as many cases as they want, any day of the week?   But that’s exactly what I get to do at my externship: try cases. I start my day by going over the files to try to figure out what the charge is, the defendant’s criminal history, and anything else that may be in the file.  Then, I call the police officer to find out everything that happened.  Next, I call or meet with any witnesses or victims who will be testifying.  After I put everything together, I prepare to try the case.  This usually involves writing down several questions that I know I need to ask and making sure that I have all the necessary documents in order. I also extensively study the statute for the charged offense and any corresponding case law so I will be prepared for any curve balls the defense attorney might throw my way.  And finally, I wait until court the next day to try the case.

As I head to court the next morning, I am the one in charge of my cases.  My supervisor lets everyone know that my cases are my cases.  And so, when a defense attorney wants to see if I will reduce a charge, he has to negotiate with me. The first time this happened, it dealt with a reckless driving charge.  I remember specifically saying to myself, “I am a 24 year old law student, and this experienced attorney is asking me to do his client a favor.  And his client shouldn’t really get a reduced charge because he has a bad driving record.  This is awkward.”  And it was.  After all, I had never tried a case before and here I was, negotiating and refusing to make a deal with someone who tries cases every day.  Needless to say, it was a weird dynamic at first.  But now that I have tried many cases over the course of the semester, when a defense attorney asks me to reduce a charge, I stand a little taller and speak a little stronger when I negotiate…or when I say no.

After the defense attorneys are finished trying to negotiate, I go before the judge and try my cases.  This involves a direct examination of the police officer, any victims, and any witnesses.  Then, the Defendant testifies and it is my chance to cross-examine him.  Finally, after all the evidence is before the Judge, I make my argument—which is essentially a recap of everything that proves the Defendant is guilty and a recommendation for an appropriate sentence based on that evidence.

What’s been the most eye-opening to me is how this externship lets you put together everything that you have learned in your classes the past few years.  For example, in Evidence, you learn about hearsay, what you can and cannot do in court, and all the rules.  But until you are in court and have to stand up and object (or defend) on hearsay grounds, it’s just that: rules and bits of information.  At that very moment in court, it is reality and it is a great way to implement what you’ve learned in your classes.  Are there times when I win a hearsay argument? Yes.  Are there times when I make mistakes on direct? Absolutely.  The best part about this program is that I am getting to make those mistakes, I’m getting to practice those hearsay arguments, and I’m getting that courtroom experience right now, as a third year law student.  And it is not courtroom experience in the sense that I try one speeding case a week.  For the past semester, I’ve put in over 300 hours, tried on average, 8 to 10 cases a day, and am in the office 3 or 4 days a week. Do these cases involve speeding and reckless driving? Yes. But they also involve a wide variety of charges.  In the past semester I’ve dealt with the following:  DUI, possession of marijuana, bad checks, resisting arrest, indecent exposure, driving with license suspended, preliminary hearings for grand larceny, and preliminary hearings for felons in possession of a weapon.  The wide variety of cases keeps it interesting while achieving my main goal for the semester: improving my advocacy skills in the courtroom.

Now, many of you who want to go into criminal law are thinking that I was right in the beginning of this blog when I said this externship is awesome.  But I’m sure many of you who want to go into civil law are thinking that this externship is not helpful to you.  The funny thing is this: I am going to be working at a civil litigation firm when I graduate.  The reason I am at this externship is so I can practice my trial skills, I can practice arguing evidentiary issues, I can practice negotiating, and I can practice going before a judge without wanting to hide behind my supervisor.  When you work for a civil litigation firm, it may be years before you see a courtroom.  I am taking advantage of every opportunity in this externship to practice for that moment.

And so, when my supervisor tells me to “go through the files and pick out the cases I want to try,” he’s not surprised when I take all of them.

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