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FAMU’s legal interns get their day in court

Associate Editor Regular News

FAMU’s legal interns get their day in court

Associate Editor

Holley Knapik, a third-year law student at Florida A&M University, recently stood in front of an Orlando jury to plead her client’s case.

This was no pretend trial where the only consequence of a loss was a learning experience or a bruised ego. No, this was the real deal with real consequences for her client.

FAMU logo This is the kind of real-life lawyering students can practice when they participate in the FAMU Criminal Defense Clinic as certified legal interns. Students fight misdemeanor cases on behalf of indigent clients in court under the direct supervision of Robert Minarcin, a former public defender and director of the program.

“It’s like a dream job,” Minarcin said of preparing students to practice law at the clinic. “I think every law school should have a program like this where you can actually have someone in the courtroom representing a live client. [Students] take away so much more, and they’re so much more ready to hit the ground running.

“Ms. Knapik was amazing at trial,” he said. “I think she could walk out of here, pass the bar, and walk into a courtroom, and there would be no problems.”

The program, launched in January, accepts misdemeanor cases, such as battery, assault, driving with a suspended license or without a license, and possession of cannabis or drug paraphernalia. The clinic earns students six credits toward their J.D., and it can be taken over a semester or during the summer term. Students have to be CLIs to fully participate; otherwise, they cannot speak in the courtroom.

Because of an administrative order in the circuit, three judges can appoint indigent clients to the clinic if they qualify financially and if they choose to participate. The program also performs intakes at homeless shelters, and people can also come to the school and talk. If they qualify financially, the program will accept their case.

Professor Minarcin’s student, Knapik, described sitting at a table in court next to him and her client.

“I was very nervous,” to go to trial, she admitted.

“I’m very appreciative of this experience and, now, I just tell anyone I can to take a clinic, even if it’s not a criminal defense clinic. It gets you out there in front of people and dealing with the clients; in front of a judge and dealing with other attorneys. Because, otherwise, when you do it after you’ve graduated and passed the bar, sometimes it’s too late, and you realize that it’s something you’re not interested in and not passionate about, so I’m very thankful for this opportunity.”

Knapik said witnesses were changing their testimonies and stories were unfolding before them, but she highlighted all of the inconsistencies in closing statements, and won her first battery case. She will graduate in December knowing a future in criminal law awaits.

“We got our jury verdict back and we were not guilty,” she beamed. “Our client was beside himself and is still thanking us.”

Professor Ann Marie Cavazos, director of the Legal Clinics at FAMU, said she was proud of the program.

“As soon as we started in January, we had over 118 cases,” she explained. “We closed about 55 of them and, now, we currently have about 63 open cases.”

Cavazos said the FAMU Law clinic partners with the Coalition for the Homeless, and once a week goes to the shelter to interview potential clients to assess their cases and determine whether to accept them.

“We work with local agencies as well, and our students are very much involved,” she said.

Because of the stringent requirements for CLIs in Florida — including a full Florida Board of Bar Examiners character and fitness review — Cavazos said many students don’t complete the certification process in time to become certified legal interns, which has resulted in problems getting students involved in the clinic.

Cavazos said the Criminal Defense Clinic involves teaching the anatomy of a case, what a trial looks like, how to prepare motion practice, and every aspect of what will make students professional and efficient.

She explained that Knapik had do the homework, not just sit idle in court only to observe — such as in a field placement.

“She had to do an investigation. She went out to the scene. She tried to get ahold of witnesses. She and her partner worked together to develop their case,” Cavazos asserted.

“The American Bar Association wants law schools to be more hands-on in preparing students for the practice of law,” Cavazos said. “We have live clients. Very different from a field placement, where they are with an attorney, but they never get to speak in court on behalf of that client. That’s the unique experience that our students who choose to participate in the practice program of the law school,” she noted.

“I believe in social justice, and I believe we have an ethical and professional responsibility to make sure that our students understand that they just don’t take what someone says. They have an obligation to investigate. To study the law, to look at the law, and to dissect the case, to develop a theory of the case, and to give their full force and best effort based on the knowledge of the law, and not be intimidated.”

Minarcin said the clinic “is starting to really flourish,” and judges have commented that some students perform better than licensed attorneys.

He noted the school is trying to establish an advanced clinic for students to take low-level felony cases off the street, referrals, or walk-ins.

“I want them to be so practice-ready,” the professor said.

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