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The Public Defender Clinic

By: Joel A. Montilla,

       SBA Vice President, 2014

As I get ready to wrap up my law school career, I have begun to reflect on my journey here at Cooley. Looking back, there are many things that I could have done better and many things I did which I feel have best prepared me both mentally and physically to enter the legal profession. Looking back at my decisions and curriculum, there is one decision to take a class that stands out and it is not even a class, it is the Public Defender Clinic.


Like many students here at WMU Cooley Law School, I am a hands-on type of learner. I have made it through six semesters of classes and found my experience at the Public Defender Clinic the most beneficial and the most rewarding. This clinic is offered to all students who wish to obtain upper level skills credit regardless of concentration. I highly recommend it.


I was hesitant at first as I had no interest in public defense work but I have to be honest: it has been the best decision I made while in law school. Not to say that other classes haven’t impacted me in some way or another, but I can’t say that in any of those classes I was able to represent 88 clients before graduating law school. Yes, that is correct with two semesters left to go I have represented 88 clients on my own. If it wasn’t for the Public Defender clinic, I am not sure I could have said the same nor would I have gained the experience I did. And in a highly competitive market for graduating law school students, I am positive this experience and exposure to the legal profession has allowed me to stand out from my fellow graduates. We’re talking about in-court experience arguing on behalf of your clients with the judge and prosecutor and/or probation officer. I had experiences in seeing clients being hauled off to jail while standing next to you, and seeing others released immediately following your representation of them. I got to experience it all-highs and lows but memorable moments nonetheless.


The Public Defender clinic is led by Professor Terry Cavanaugh, the individual responsible for my involvement in the clinic itself and one who I consider instrumental for my awakening throughout this law school journey. He spoke to me my first term and I blew him off like “Yeah, yeah whatever.” Yet, he was persistent. I am glad he was. I signed up reluctantly but figured “hey, I need the credits.” The rest is history. He is truly one of a kind and truly cares about students gaining the proper experience and training to hit the floor running once they graduate.


My first day at the clinic (after orientation), I was sent to county to interview four clients we had to represent later that week to find out what they wanted to plea and why. We were literally thrown to the battlefield to figure it out. One may wonder (like I did myself) “Where is the training?” My supervising attorney laid it out the best: “You’ve been training for two years. Now is the time to tie it all together. Go out there and be a lawyer. Isn’t this what you all are here for?” It was! We jumped right in and were acting attorneys from day one with our responsibilities ranging from client intake all the way to trial. Ironically enough, my first client was one of the last ones I represented 14 weeks later. It was a complete circle and one that I will never forget.


During the 14 weeks at the clinic, among the many things I was able to learn, I was able to gain experience in arraignments, pretrial hearings, sentencing, showcase, and reviews. I have seen clients return back to society and back with their families, but I have also seen clients torn away from their daily routines and their family members. I have had clients show up drunk to court and I have had clients do a 180 right in front of me from doing all sorts of bad things to cleaning up their act and being discharged from probation with improvements. I have gained insight into what this part of the profession entails. Regardless of where any student wishes to practice, this type of in-court performance and experience is invaluable. It allows you to see what it is all about and gain an advantage over your colleagues that many employers look for as well as potential clients regarding experience you may bring to the table.


Out of all my two years in law school, this is by far the best decision I have made. I strongly encourage others to give it a try and see what it is all about. For more information, see the link below as well as Professor Cavanaugh’s email address. Tell him I sent you ;)