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Now student lawyers can say 'I'll see you in court'

By Margaret SaartSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / January 16, 1984



Madison, Wis.

On one Tuesday morning recently, student attorneys Roger Sturdevant and Clare Cherkasky went to court. They handled about a dozen cases in which charges included disorderly conduct, driving while under the influence of an intoxicant, obstructing an officer, dangerous use of a firearm, and retail theft.

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The students are part of a program at the University of Wisconsin Law School entitled the Legal Defense Project (LDP).

Set up in 1974 by Prof. Stephen J. Herzberg, the program offers students practical courtroom experience and, in the process, handles 40 percent of the public-defender misdemeanor caseload for Wisconsin's Dane County

Every Tuesday and Thursday the students go to the jail and interview people brought in on a variety of charges. Those who can't afford to hire an attorney become clients of the LDP students. And the student attorneys must sometimes handle ''walk ins'' - people who have not been held in jail overnight but have been given a citation to appear in court.

The students are in court every day of the week. The supervising attorney is there as well, but the student attorney is the one who stands before the court commissioner, working to represent the client's best interests. That amounts to valuable clinical education for a law student - the kind that's rare.

What sets LDP apart from the other clinical programs here at the University of Wisconsin and in most law schools is that students actually do get the opportunity to appear in court and represent clients. Professor Herzberg was responsible for setting the program up in that way. He is adamant about the importance of students doing the courtroom work under the supervision of attorneys:

''I think it vitally important for the student to understand the nexus between classroom theory and actual practice. It would be much easier and quicker if we (Herzberg and the supervising attorneys) did the actual courtroom work. We know how things work and can make them move much faster. But we remind one another all the time: 'Hands off! . . . (Let) the students do it.' ''

His opinion is seconded by the students. Mr. Sturdevant says: ''I took a course in criminal procedure as a prerequisite for the LDP. When I entered the program and began to practice, I realized how little I really knew at first, but now I have more confidence and understand how it works.''

Nick Holmes, another LDP student, who worked as an investigator for the public defender's office in Washington, D.C., says: ''I came to this law school specifically to participate in this program. As far as I know, this is the only program like this in the country.''

Herzberg estimates that less than 5 percent of the clinical-education programs in the country's law schools permit students to actually represent lients.

Michael Davis, one of the supervising attorneys, agrees with the Herzberg estimate: ''From talking with friends around the country at other law schools, there are a lot of programs where the students do the research and the legwork and the attorneys do the actual courtroom work. A sort of 'here-kid-hold-my-briefcase-and-watch-me' attitude.

''Frankly, I'm jealous of the LDP kids. I wish there'd been an LDP when I was in law school.''

Steve Bablitch, assistant district attorney for Dane County, says that the success of the program depends to a large extent on the supervising attorneys. Bablitch's tone of voice shows a mixture of admiration and exasperation as he talks about the program. He acknowledges its importance, but at the same time he is concerned about the case load it creates for his office.

''It's much easier to deal with someone who's not going to file all the motions,'' he says. ''The students really put us through our paces, and we want to move along,'' he continues.

Judge Michael Torphy, Circuit Court Branch 2, says: ''. . . From an educational standpoint and for the judicial system as a whole, this program is a good idea. These students will make better lawyers who will do a better job of representing their clients. I think the program enhances the whole legal process.''

The supervising attorneys and Herzberg work with 16 to 20 students during the academic year and 10 during the summer. These attorneys are selected by Herzberg and the dean of The law school. Four work in the LDP office and are assigned to cases on a rotating basis so that every student gets to work with all the attorneys. Two attorneys also are assigned to work at the courthouse, providing students with support during preliminary arraignments and the interview process at the jail.