Juvenile Law Externship provides students with real, practical client experience

Photo of students and Professor Ron Right in a classroom

For a lawyer, says Erica Oates (BA ’14, JD ’17), talking to young people about criminal statutes and the burden of proof can be difficult.

It can be arduous, challenging.

“I learned that if I can get a kid to understand that, I can probably get an adult to understand it in a criminal or civil context.”

It can be rewarding, too.

Communicating with clients. A seemingly simple idea that, when wrapped in details and esoteric laws, can present myriad problems and complexities.

Offering students practical experience in communicating with clients is just one aspect of a relatively new course at Wake Forest Law.

Judge Larry Fine (JD ’82) teaches the course, along with Professor Ron Wright, Needham Yancey Gulley Professor of Criminal Law.

Judge Fine, as an adjunct professor, taught a course in juvenile law at Wake Forest for 15 years. The idea for a juvenile law externship made sense, he says.

“I divided the course evenly between delinquency — children who commit what would otherwise be crimes if they were adults — and child welfare (dealing with children who are abused, neglected or dependent),” he says. “Over the years I felt that I could not adequately cover both topics in one semester. It became necessary to split the course into two separate entities.

“Juvenile court seemed like a great venue for students to get real practice experience with excellent supervision.”

Fine has served as a District Court Judge for the 21st Judicial District of North Carolina since 2001. He and Wright collaborated on the new program and gained input from statewide juvenile defender Eric Zogry, Forsyth County Public Defender Paul James and members of the Wake Forest faculty.

“Our approach is to have several weeks of intensive lectures on juvenile law, match the students with their supervising attorneys for a few weeks of observation, then letting the attorneys assign the students cases for which they would be responsible for handling.”

Kerri Sigler of the public defender’s office, and Kelly Lee and Stuart Teeter, who contract with the state to provide juvenile delinquency representation, are supervising attorneys.

Oates and Sigler were paired for the course.

“She let me hit the ground running handling my own cases,” says Oates. “I dealt with the juveniles and their parents, and handled their cases under her supervision.”

Says Fine, “We try to be comprehensive in covering the varied aspects of juvenile delinquency law. We study U.S. Supreme Court case law that provides historical precedents as well as focusing on North Carolina case law, statutory procedures, rules of evidence advocacy skills, ethics and professionalism.”

Oates says she learned about the importance of the court counselors, who make recommendations regarding treatment or help to address underlying behavioral or psychological issues. The recommendations, she says, greatly affect a judge’s decision as it relates to punishment.

“This is a unique feature of juvenile court in that we don’t have an analogous position in adult criminal court to address why they are committing crimes,” she says. “I think having the court counselors in juvenile court is important and a more holistic approach to try to keep the kids from reoffending or getting into the adult criminal system. But if they do end up as adults in the criminal system, it doesn’t mean their underlying issues have disappeared.

Students, says Fine, advocate for a real client. In a real courtroom before a real judge.

“I have always been a supporter of Wake’s clinical programs having hosted students when I was in private practice as well as hosting students for Wake’s judicial Externship program in the summer since I have been on the bench,” says Fine, a recipient of the Harvey A. Lupton Award for distinguished service in the practice of criminal law.

“I have also been well aware of the changing landscape within the practice of law that does not provide students with the opportunities for clerkships as it did a generation ago. These employment opportunities were instrumental in providing students with not only legal experience, but also guidance in professionalism and the ethical practice of law.  Juvenile court seemed like a great venue for students to get real practice experience with excellent supervision.”

The course, beyond academics, was at times difficult, both professionally and emotionally, Oates says.

“A lot of these kids come from really terrible backgrounds. I had to learn not to be shocked at some of the things they told me about their home and school life. But through this, I learned the value of attorney-client privilege. Whatever they told me about what they wanted to do with their case or what was going on in their lives, I couldn’t tell their parents because the child was my client, not their parents. But as much as I counseled them that it was their decision as to what we did with their case, such as whether we took a plea or went to trial, their parents would ultimately color their decision with their own opinions.”