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Nick Illuminati (’14) gets hands-on trial experience thanks to Rockingham County District Attorney Phil Berger Jr. (’99)

Nick Illuminati (‘14) wanted to know the best way to experience litigation. Rockingham County  (N.C.) District Attorney Phil Berger Jr. (‘99) wasted little time in answering Illuminati’s question. The courtroom, he said, is that way.

Illuminati, a third-year student in the Wake Forest Law, had so far focused his legal education mostly on the business aspect of law, on corporate governance.

But he wanted to experience litigation, a trial in criminal court.

“It’s amazing how much you learn when you’re actually thrown into the swing of things. I had experience in District Court right away,” says Illuminati, a Philadelphia native who earned a bachelor’s degree in accounting and finance from Drexel University.

Illuminati has talked with victims and police officers, and he has worked on a Superior Court case that involved an assault on a government official. In fact, he’s one of the few students in the Civil and Criminal Externship Clinic  to take part in a jury trial.

The Forsyth County District Attorney’s Office, for example, typically welcomes for internships several students from Wake Forest Law. Rural Rockingham County, about 25 miles to the northeast, had one student during the fall 2013 semester — Illuminati.

“By choosing Rockingham, I definitely set myself up to have, I think, the opportunity to do more than other people are doing,”

Professor Carol Anderson heads the clinic, a semester-long experience with a complementary classroom element. The program features dual civil law and criminal law placements for each student. On the criminal side, which is pertinent to Illuminati’s experience, students spend six weeks of the semester in relevant offices, such as a District Attorney’s Office, Federal Public Defender’s Office or a private practice.

“All students are offered the chance to do a jury trial, but it’s on a first-come, first-served basis since I don’t have 25 jury trials each semester for my 25 students,” Anderson explained.

The hour-long drive from Winston-Salem to Wentworth a few times each week is arduous, as Illuminati says. No matter. The experience gained with Berger and the other attorneys and staff made up for the tedious drive on the mostly lonely, dark and winding country roads. He has even given thought to a career in prosecution, as a trial lawyer.

“If I’m doing litigation, I would want it to be in the criminal context.”

As prosecutors, Berger gets law students heavily involved in District Court and Juvenile Court, with the goal of having each intern conduct a full-fledged jury trial, including preparing and interviewing witnesses and standing in front of not only a judge but members of the community.”

Berger considers it a privilege, a chance to return the favor, so to speak. His father, N.C. State Sen. Phil Berger (R-Eden), and brother, Kevin Berger (’00), who practices law in Rockingham County, also are graduates of the Wake Forest Law. Berger Sr. graduated in in 1982.

Phil Berger Jr. says Illuminati came well-prepared and eager to learn.

“Nick worked well with our staff and was an asset to the prosecutors while he was in Rockingham County,” he said. “I hope the students who make the trip gain experience they wouldn’t obtain anywhere else. I would also hope they find a passion for prosecution that may not have otherwise been discovered.”

Adds Illuminati, “I can only say good things about Rockingham and Phil Berger.” Things such as the great way Berger treats his staff and other lawyers, or how he helps magistrates handle traffic tickets and other minor violations.

“What I wanted to do was be able to give back to Wake Forest,” Berger says. “Wake’s a special place to me, and the opportunity to provide some leadership and counseling and mentoring for law students who are about to enter the profession means a great deal to me.”