Children's Defense Clinic

The Children's Defense Clinic is a litigation-oriented clinic that focuses primarily on the needs of indigent children who are before the court on delinquency matters. Under the supervision of Clinical Professor and Director, Julie McConnell, who has served as both a prosecutor and a public defender, clinic students serve as defense counsel for youth accused of delinquency (criminal) offenses or guardians ad litem on cases that involve issues such as abuse and neglect, education rights, or child sex trafficking. The clinic is open to second- and third-year students, although students must have their third-year practice certificates in order to appear in court. Students will conduct numerous court hearings throughout the semester.

The clinic has successfully litigated hundreds of criminal cases in the Central Virginia Area. Judges regularly tell our students that the representation they provide is far superior to that of the typical court-appointed attorney. We provide holistic defense with the primary goal being to do everything within our abilities to make certain that our clients reach adulthood without a felony record.

In our post-conviction work, we have successfully gained early release for more than 12 juvenile serious offenders and litigated several Miller resentencing cases. In the Azeem Majeed case, we worked in partnership with DLA Piper to convince a Norfolk Circuit court to reduce his two life sentences to 25 years based on his good behavior in prison. We similarly partnered with the Federal Public Defender for the Eastern District of Virginia on a federal resentencing in which we convinced the court to substantially reduce Philip Friend’s sentence. We have also successfully avoided felony convictions for dozens of juvenile clients and helped more than twenty Central American children on their path to Special Immigrant Juvenile Status so they can obtain permanent residency here.

The preferred prerequisites for the course, which can be taken simultaneously, are Juvenile Justice, Family Law & Procedure, and Professional Responsibility. There is a preference for third-year students, but second years are allowed. In the clinic, you will focus on: courtroom litigation/advocacy; interviewing/counseling; negotiations; research/writing; motions practice, the Rules of Evidence; mitigation; case and sentencing investigation; trauma-informed advocacy; and practice management.

Overall Goals of the Children’s Defense Clinic

  1. To provide students with the opportunity to develop practical legal skills and to apply what they have learned in their traditional doctrinal courses to those skills.
  2. To encourage students to develop the ability to reflect on what they have learned.
  3. To help the students develop a deeper understanding of the ethics of criminal law practice.
  4. To teach the students to analyze their cases and their role as counsel as part of the larger criminal justice system.
  5. To help students develop interviewing, negotiation, trial, and appellate advocacy skills.
  6. To help students develop strategy and a motions practice.
  7. To help students understand the power of the narrative and to teach them where to look for the mitigation they need to tell their client’s story.

To meet these goals, students work on a variety of cases, from truancy to misdemeanors and felonies and practice in multiple jurisdictions in front of many different judges. In most cases, students are involved in their cases from the initial arraignment. They arrive at court well before the scheduled arraignment to facilitate rapport building and to schedule a formal client interview. Each of the students is responsible for multiple clients a semester.

At the arraignment, the students also explain how the clinic works, and have the families sign consent forms for records, and for representation through the clinic. Afterward, the students work on obtaining the appropriate records and investigating their cases. At the first meeting after the arraignment, the students speak with clients about the alleged offense and ascertain the necessary information about witnesses. The students then begin their discovery process to make sure they find out everything they can about the case. They begin contacting the officer involved and any other possible witnesses, going to the scene of the crime when necessary, and gathering potential evidence, such as videotaped recordings of the incident. They then reach out to the prosecutor to make sure they have any statements our client may have made and any exculpatory evidence. This is often a good opportunity to start providing a narrative about the client to the prosecutor. We want to start giving the prosecutor a reason to consider leniency for our clients. All along, the students are pursuing information about our clients from a variety of professionals, often including teachers, social workers, case managers, in-home counselors, psychologists, psychiatrists, police officers, and school administrators. The students develop case plans, strategize and prepare motions, research legal issues, meet with their clients, and work on file and time management.

Throughout the process, we discuss their cases in case rounds with the rest of the class and in weekly team supervision meetings. Together we discuss strategy and develop a plan for informing our clients about their options. We discuss negotiation techniques, and again, we complete our preparation with a simulation in class of their upcoming motions arguments, trials or sentencing hearings.

In Court, the students engage in a variety of presentations, ranging from making an initial appearance to accept appointment, arguing motions, trying cases, presenting sentencing arguments, and handling appeals.

Through their representation of our indigent clients, students are exposed to the extreme difficulties many families face. They have homeless clients, clients who have lost one or both parents, clients in foster care, clients who have a parent in prison, clients who have one or more drug-addicted parents, clients who are mentally ill, clients with disabilities of other kinds, and clients who live in extraordinarily challenging environments.