The Magazine for Alumni and Friends of the University of Wyoming
University of Wyoming
1000 East University Ave.
Laramie, WY 82071-2000
By Micaela Myers
You may be surprised to learn that the University of Wyoming College of Law legal clinics are the largest provider of uncompensated legal services in Wyoming—touching all counties in the state and undertaking 437 cases/clients in the most recent two-year period. “For a lot of the people, if we don’t help them, no one else is going to. They don’t have money to be able to afford an attorney,” says Dona Playton, director of the Legal Services Program and Domestic Violence Legal Assistance Program.
UW began offering clinics in the 1970s and continues to add additional clinic and practicum options, which are as valuable to the third-year law students as they are to those they serve. “This is what they’re going to be doing, so it comes down to what our mission is at the law school: It is to teach students not only how to think like a lawyer but how to be a lawyer,” Playton continues. “This is the real deal.”
Real-world experiences translate into real-world results, with UW graduates reporting higher first-time Wyoming bar exam pass rates than non-UW graduates. UW graduates go on to work in law firms, in academia, in business and industry, in government, as public defenders and in judicial clerkships.
“Being in a clinic setting is the most valuable thing you can do during law school,” says Jodi Mullen, a mother of four from Loveland, Colo., who serves as a student director of the domestic violence clinic. “You get to fully represent clients from start to finish, and that is an experience you don’t get many other places. And we help people, and that is really important to me as well.”
That double benefit of real-world experience and helping people is what drives all the law school clinics and practicums. The range of clinics and their availability to law students truly sets the UW law school apart from many of its competitors and gives graduates a head start toward successful careers.
“We represent low-income people and handle a variety of different cases,” Playton says. Cases can include child abuse and neglect, divorce, child custody, child support, termination of parental rights, establishment of paternity, guardianship, adoptions, landlord/tenant, debtor/creditor and immigration. “The clients in the domestic violence clinic represent low-income victims of domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault and stalking,” she says.
“We usually have between six and eight students in each clinic, and we are working on between 20 and 40 cases in each clinic at any given time,” Playton says. “Students do all the same work that an attorney does, but they can’t give legal advice unless it comes through one of the faculty supervisors. We have a student practice rule in Wyoming that allows third-year law students to practice law under a faculty supervisor’s bar license.”
Rennie Polidora, originally from Mississippi, participated in the domestic violence clinic and is now a staff attorney for the Wyoming Coalition Against Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault in Laramie, Wyo. “It’s just invaluable what you learn as far as court procedure, drafting documents and working with clients,” the 2011 graduate says. “I can’t imagine graduating from law school and starting to practice without that experience.”
“We do mostly post-conviction work for inmates in Wyoming who can’t afford an attorney,” says Diane Courselle, director of the Defender Aid Program. The clinic also handles direct appeals and motions for sentence reduction and assists public defenders in the trial courts. “We’ve had some really significant cases. Last year one of my students argued a murder case out of Sheridan County that involved three kids who committed a crime. It was Wyoming’s first chance to address life sentencing for juveniles.
“When we do direct appeals and things, we are fulfilling their constitutional right to an appeal and their constitutional right to effective counsel,” Courselle says, adding that they’re also saving the state money. “I think the best way we serve the state is the way in which all the clinics do: We are training good lawyers.”
Eight students participate each semester, with approximately 40 open cases at a time. Graham Hersh, a student director from Denver, Colo., says that the clinics are one of the reasons he chose UW. “I think there’s a huge divide between legal education and legal practice,” he says. The clinics bridge that gap. “Just yesterday we were in Cheyenne with one of our students arguing in the Wyoming Supreme Court. That’s pretty unheard of in other states.”
“Wyoming is a great school to come to because of our small class sizes and the practical experience—both through clinics and the types of internships you can get,” says Peter Howard, an Army veteran from Cheyenne, Wyo. “You’re going to be handling real appeals and writing real motions.”
The prosecution clinic is designed to assist Wyoming’s prosecutors and county attorneys. Each semester, five to seven students help with everything from memos and motions to arguing in front of the Wyoming Supreme Court. The cases can be anything from drugs and larceny to child abuse.
“My goal is that, by the time they leave me after a semester of doing this, they’ve advanced to the point that they’d be competent arguing a case,” Director Darrell Jackson says. “More often than not, they get to have an argument in front of the Wyoming Supreme Court, and that’s really the big moment where they see how they stack up against the best of the best, and we’re having some really good responses from the justices.”
So well, in fact, that Caitlin (Wallace) Young, originally from Cape May, N.J., was contacted by the Wyoming attorney general’s office for her resume just hours after her student appearance in front of the court. Before she graduated in May 2013, she had secured a job as an assistant attorney general for the state of Wyoming. “It’s a dream job,” she says.
“The clinic is the first time you really have real people on the end of it,” Young says. “It’s very different than hypotheticals. You’ve got somebody’s life depending on what you’re doing.”
“I think it’s important for the students, the community and other attorneys as well,” David Singleton, a student director from Cheyenne, Wyo., says of the clinics. After developing a relationship with the district attorney’s office in Cheyenne during the clinic, Singleton was offered an internship, and he hopes to continue as a prosecutor after graduation.
The Estate Planning Practicum was created to give students transactional law experience and to serve Wyoming’s indigent population. “This is a great opportunity to have low-income people have some representation, especially in an area that’s so confusing,” says outgoing Director Jessica Schneider. The practicum is three years old and currently focuses on wills and powers of attorney. “A lot of times people have minor children, and they want to appoint a guardian for their child, so we’ve been able to help people with an estate plan that does that for them,” she says.
“I’ve learned how to do basic wills, powers of attorney, advanced health care directives and probate [avoidance],” says Andrew Priebe, a student director from Centennial, Colo. Between four and five students participate each semester. “I think it’s huge because it gives us a chance to apply what we’ve learned,” he says.
“Our students generally will work on one immigration asylum case and one international human rights case per semester,” says Suzan Pritchett, co-director of the international clinic with Professor Noah Novogrodsky. “Their exposure to the world and getting them to think in a global way is invaluable, and the skills they are learning here are really transferable to any sort of practice.”
“It gives us the opportunity to actually speak to clients and put into practice what we learn in class,” says student Sergio Garcia. Originally from Salt Lake City, Utah, Garcia first performed Spanish interpretation for the clinic and then signed up due to his interest in immigration law.
“We’re providing a huge service to those seeking asylum in making sure their case is fully heard by the immigration system,” says Pritchett, adding that most would not be able to afford representation. “In order to be granted asylum, you need to show that you either experienced past persecution or you have a fear of being persecuted because of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group.”
The clinic takes 10 to 12 students a semester. They travel to Denver, Colo., for immigration court hearings and sometimes travel internationally for other cases. International advocacy projects currently include providing legal assistance to a tribe in Kenya fighting to keep its tribal lands and assisting in a Supreme Court of Ugandan case advocating for women’s rights to adequate maternal health care. In addition, “Uganda has recently discovered huge reserves of oil,” Pritchett says. “We are working with an organization there to draft a report to the Ugandan government on good oil governance and its implications for human rights. We’re using Wyoming’s regulatory regime as an example of a best practice and demonstrating that the extractive industries can improve the lives of the communities surrounding them.”
In addition to the clinics featured here, the law school offers a Summer Trial Institute and legal externships. In fall 2014, the law school will partner with the Wyoming Attorney General’s Water and Natural Resource Division to create a new clinic—the Energy, Environmental and Natural Resources Legal Clinic—which will allow students to have real-world experiences with a variety of energy and natural resources law issues. All the clinics rely on grants and donations, and privately supported funds that benefit the clinics include the John Burman Fund, Kepler Fund for Professional Education, the American College of Trust and Estate Counsel Estate Planning Fund, the Estate Planning Adjunct Faculty Fund, the Estate Planning Practicum Fund, the John P. Ellbogen Foundation Endowment for Center for International Human Rights Law and Advocacy, and the Robert J. Golten Memorial Fellowship.
To learn more, visit uwyo.edu/law/experiential.