By Sarah Galer
Photo by Robert Kozloff

First-time criminal defendant Mohammed Smith was skeptical when he found out he had been assigned a team of third-year law students as his court-appointed legal counsel.

But the young advocates at the University of Chicago Law School’s Federal Criminal Justice Clinic soon won Smith over.

"Having students represent me in court was real hard to take in at first," said Smith, who was charged with distribution of the drug oxycodone. "But the job the students did for me in court was incredible. They were energetic and enthused talking about me and my case, my daughters, my business, arguing that I shouldn't be labeled a menace to society, that it was just a bad choice I made. Every little piece I told them, they put it together."

Helping clients like Smith is the mission of the Federal Criminal Justice Clinic. Founded in 2008 by Alison Siegler, associate clinical professor of law, it is the nation’s only law school clinic devoted solely to representing defendants who have been charged with federal felonies and cannot afford to hire their own lawyers. Through the clinic, Law School students are given the opportunity to work closely with clients and argue in front of federal judges. Such cases offer valuable real-world experience and influence many students’ career choices.

Training in the real world

“I started the Federal Criminal Justice Clinic because I thought it would be an incredible opportunity for students to really learn how to be lawyers,” said Siegler, who also teaches a federal sentencing class and a yearlong seminar on top of her full-time clinical work. “I wanted this to be a clinic where the students would have a huge amount of hands-on involvement with the cases. I wanted them to be, in essence, the students’ cases.”

Siegler’s clinic has been met with enthusiasm from students, even those not interested in careers in criminal law or legal defense work. The demand for spots in the clinic has become so high that the Law School recently hired a clinic fellow, Erica Zunkel, enabling the clinic to expand its student staff from 10 to 16.

The expansion also lets the clinic help more clients like Smith.

Under the federal sentencing guidelines, Smith originally faced up to 22 years in prison for a first-time drug offense. Despairing at times of his chances for leniency in a legal system he did not trust, Smith said Siegler would not let him give up. He credits her guidance and the students’ advocacy with persuading the judge to sentence him to a two-year prison term — a far lighter sentence than the prosecution was requesting and nowhere near the sentence Smith feared he would receive.

Twenty-two years old at the time of the offense, Smith was a single father who became unemployed after an on-the-job injury. Siegler and her students wrote more than fifty pages of sentencing motions and worked hard to show the judge that Smith had made an unfortunate choice at a desperate time but that his life was back on track. In the four years since his offense, Smith had started his own successful trucking business and continued to maintain a strong network of friends and family.

Andrew Grindrod, JD'12, now a clerk for U.S. District Court Judge Paul S. Diamond, was one of Smith's student legal representatives. Working with Smith solidified his desire to do trial work and taught him the importance of client relations, Grindrod said.

"You can sit in lecture halls all day, but you won't get the kind of direct client interaction you get in the clinical context, something Alison really facilitated,” Grindrod said. “You can learn the substantive law by reading books, but the things Alison taught us outside the substantive law are just as valuable. Thinking on your feet, introducing yourself to a federal judge, and learning how to earn your client's trust—those are the intangibles that you don't gain in another setting."

Giving clients a better chance

The clinic represents its clients from initial bail hearings through sentencing and beyond. Siegler, a longtime advocate for fair sentencing, puts a tremendous emphasis on the sentencing phase. She helps her students write in-depth sentencing motions and work with family and friends of the defendant to show a strong home life and support. 

The clinic is randomly appointed to individual cases by the district court, and third-year students from the clinic work on the cases under the state’s student practice rule. Illinois state law allows for students in their final year of law school to argue in front of a judge, as long as a licensed attorney supervises them.

As part of its broader mission to promote fairness in the criminal justice system, the clinic also tackles larger-scale projects. To help advance sentencing jurisprudence, for example, the clinic recently wrote an amicus curiae brief for a pending Supreme Court case, Alleyne v. United States, which Siegler has called a potentially revolutionary sentencing case. The clinic’s “friend of the court” brief, drafted by students, Siegler, and Mayer Brown associates Frank M. Dickerson III, JD’10, and Charles M. Woodworth, JD’11, argues that it is unconstitutional to allow judges rather than juries to decide essential facts that set mandatory minimum penalties, such as the amount of drugs for which a defendant is responsible. It also draws attention to the fact that 80 percent of mandatory minimum sentences imposed in the federal system last year came in drug cases.

"The sentencing phase is extremely important,” said Siegler, who was pleased the clinic’s brief became a focus of discussion by the justices during oral argument. “If the client is going to plead guilty, as Mo did, then everything comes down to the sentencing.”

Amanda Penabad, JD'12, was one of two students who helped defend a client in a mail fraud case that culminated in January 2012.  She said working for the clinic helped bring into focus her interest in government service and criminal law practice.

"[Siegler] has created this alternate path that people feel comfortable pursuing and know that they can go to her and find a mentor,” said Penabad, now a clerk for U.S. District Court Judge Robert W. Gettleman.

The students’ work in the mail fraud case earned rare praise in court from U.S. District Court Judge Ruben Castillo, who took a moment during the sentencing hearing to compliment their advocacy.

"You are well represented here today in terms of your legal team," Judge Castillo told the defendant. "They have tried hard and mightily for you, submitted everything they possibly could, and you have been as well represented as any defendant I've ever seen in federal court."