The Criminal Defense and Reentry Clinic teaches students to serve the whole client

Merging both ends of the criminal justice system by pairing indigent defense with offender reentry, the Criminal Defense and Reentry Clinic embodies in its pedagogy, curriculum and fieldwork what Professors of Clinical Law Kim Taylor-Thompson and Anthony Thompson call the holistic legal practice.

This guiding philosophy emphasizes the importance of the life of the client rather than the outcome of the case, says the duo, who have both taught at NYU Law since 1996.

Kim Taylor-Thompson
Kim Taylor-Thompson

“It’s thinking deeply about what it means to represent an individual well,” said Taylor-Thompson, who previously served as CEO of Duke Corporate Education, Duke University’s custom executive education nonprofit corporation, and spent a decade at the Public Defender Service for the District of Columbia.

“It’s understanding that they have issues that are not only deeply entrenched in the criminal justice system, but that in their lives they are encountering other obstacles that they need help navigating.”

Using New York City as a teaching laboratory, the year-long clinic balances seminars on campus with fieldwork at either Brooklyn Defender Services or the Bronx County Criminal Defense office of the Legal Aid Society. Students work directly with clients under the oversight of public defenders, shouldering responsibilities that range from writing motions to representing a client before a criminal judge. In 2014-15 at Brooklyn Defenders, for example, students took on cases within the organization’s Adolescent Representation Division and also helped develop a database of police misconduct. At Bronx Legal Aid, students gathered data for a project tracking the confiscation of personal property upon arrest and how often the property fails to be returned.

Anthony Thompson

The professors are on a mission to give their students the skills that will carry them throughout their legal careers, regardless of whether they pursue public interest work. “Our goal is to prepare students to think not only as you needed to be a 20th century lawyer—good in the courtroom—but as you need to be a 21st century lawyer—good at advocacy in the courtroom, the media, in legislation and in the community,” said Thompson, who had designed the nation’s first law school course on offender reentry, the predecessor to this clinic.

To that end, the seminars employ simulations designed to teach students to problem-solve and think creatively. For a class teaching media advocacy, there is a live pitch session with newspaper editors for story ideas or op-eds. Or, as an exercise in innovation as a lawyer, students may pitch projects to program officers of private foundations—a skill that is necessary, says Thompson, since public funds can be scarce.

Students testify to the rewards of the clinic experience and their relationships with its professors. “Tony counseled me throughout the job process; Kim has been great at critiquing, in a constructive and affirming way, my trial skills throughout the simulations,” says Harrison White ’15. “They're kind of my East Coast parents.”

Candice Jones ‘07, director of the Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice, took part in the clinic the first time it was offered in 2005. She credits the pair with teaching her vital skills for leading her large staff today. “You can be very strong in your practice. That doesn’t make you a great professional. That doesn’t teach you humility when working with clients, or how to be collegial with other professionals. Being strong also means being respectful of clients, having a service-based model, listening to people and empowering them to have a position,” says Jones. “I learned my core professional strengths from Kim and Tony.”

Jones is just one of the professors’ former students in leading public interest roles. Johnathan Smith ’07 is a senior counsel in the US Department of Justice Office of the Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights. Derwyn Bunton ’98 is chief district defender at Orleans Public Defenders in New Orleans, where another alumnus, Chris Flood ’00, now an attorney at Federal Defenders of New York, had served as deputy chief defender.

Mindful of the steps that the American Bar Association and states like California and New York are taking to encourage more experiential learning in law school, Taylor-Thompson says, “We’re trying to bridge the gap between what students learn about the law and what you can do with the law. We’re trying to prepare this next generation of leadership to address problems in a different way and in a way that will have greater impact.” 

Originally posted July 7, 2015.