Penn State students get shot at ‘real-world lawyering’ in new clinic

Starting this fall, a few Penn State law students will get a seat at the defense counsel table in the courtrooms of the Centre County Courthouse.

The students will defend people charged with misdemeanors such as DUI or simple assault at preliminary hearings, they will write and argue pretrial motions, and they will pick juries and cross-examine witnesses at trial. Two lawyers from the Public Defender Office, Casey McClain and Richard Settgast, will supervise them.

The arrangement is the new Indigent Criminal Justice Clinic between Penn State’s Dickinson School of Law and the county’s Public Defender Office. The goal of the clinic is to give law students actual courtroom experience before they graduate, and it was modeled after similar clinics at the University of Pennsylvania and Georgetown.

“This is basically the culmination of the law school experience, where they get to take all the theory and apply it to not just the classroom,” Settgast said. “You’re actually in front of the judge.”

The students’ participation will span the full academic year, with the hope they will see the case from its beginning to its resolution. Students will represent clients who are charged with misdemeanor crimes and who qualify for the free representation based on income and household requirements.

“You’re ultimately giving the students the best opportunity to become immersed in real-world lawyering,” said McClain, who called the clinic a much-needed link between the Centre County Court system and the law school at Penn State.

Clients can choose to opt out of having a student represent them, but the lawyers are hopeful clients will appreciate the chance to have two sets of eyes on their cases.

The idea for the clinic goes back to June, when during the Jerry Sandusky trial, some county court offices ran satellite operations in Penn State’s Lewis Katz Building as a less congested alternative to coming to Bellefonte, whose downtown was then a media circus. The Public Defender Office was one of them.

“We had students actually stop in, and they were interested in what we do as public defenders,” Settgast said. “It was such a positive experience with students stopping in, asking questions.”

The law school dean, Philip McConnaughay, made the temporary arrangement permanent through the clinic, said Settgast, who graduated from Penn State’s law school in 2007.

Two or three students are expected to be accepted to do the clinical work, and they must be in their third year. Students at the Carlisle campus are eligible to apply, too.

In return, the students will get course credit for their time.

McClain and Settgast received adjunct professor appointments in the law school and will work with the students on campus on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

McConnaughay, the dean who is leaving the university in the summer for a job in China, said the clinic is another example of experiential learning at the law school that includes the Family Law Clinic and the Rural Economic Development Clinic.