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April 7, 2009

Criminal Defense Clinic celebrates thirty-five years of teaching students, representing clients

“Participating in the Criminal Defense Clinic was my favorite part of law school and my experiences in the clinic are part of what led me to be a practicing criminal defense attorney today.”
—Kristi Couvillon, ’05, an attorney at Sumpter & Gonzalez in Austin

The Criminal Defense Clinic, one of the oldest and largest law clinics at the University of Texas School of Law, is celebrating its thirty-fifth birthday this semester.

Since its founding in the spring of 1974, the Criminal Defense Clinic has taught more than 2,000 students, including many leaders of the Texas criminal justice system, and supervised the student handling of more than 10,000 cases. The collaboration between clinic students and supervising attorneys has also produced impressive results, including a victory in the United States Supreme Court.

Notable graduates of the clinic include Johnny Sutton, ’87, the U.S. attorney for the Western District of Texas; Judge Paul Womack, ’75, of the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals; Criminal District Court Judge Mike Lynch, ’74, of Travis County, and U.S. Magistrate Judges for the Western District of Texas Andy Austin, ’85, and Robert Pitman, ’88.

“Congratulations to the Criminal Defense Clinic on its thirty-fifth birthday!” said David Wahlberg, ’76, a criminal defense attorney in Austin. “I’m proud to be an alumnus and pleased the clinic continues to help law students develop into lawyers.”

UT Law’s clinical program began when professor Bob Dawson decided that he would run a “first chair” Criminal Defense Clinic. “This approach is the driving philosophy of clinical education at the Law School. It is more difficult and time-consuming to teach this way, but the educational benefits to the student are worth all the extra time and stress,” said William (Bill) Allison,’71, director of the Criminal Defense Clinic since 2004. Students and faculty have also come to appreciate over the last thirty-five years how much a good clinical experience enhances the traditional law school education, he said.

Dawson, who died in 2005, served as director of the Criminal Defense Clinic from 1974 to 1998. When it opened, only a single Legal Aid Clinic operated at the Law School and Dawson had just completed a year of training with the District of Columbia public defender.

“From day one, the Criminal Defense Clinic was a better educational and clinical experience because of the ability of the students to get a full range of experience,” said UT Law professor Jack Sampson, noting that students were able to track criminal cases from start to finish because they move more quickly through the legal process than civil cases. “Students got good experience and real contested cases,” said Sampson, who taught the Legal Aid Clinic in 1970 and founded the Children’s Rights Clinic in 1980.

“Not surprisingly, the Criminal Defense Clinic flourished under Bob’s direction, and even as the number of clinics in the Law School grew, it remained oversubscribed,” wrote UT Law professor Steven Goode in a Texas Law Review tribute to Dawson. “Bob headed the clinic for twenty-five years, training more than a generation of students. He taught them not only the law, but how to be lawyers...What mattered to Bob was imbuing his students with his passion for excellence, for caring about their clients, and for practicing law in accordance with the highest standards of the profession,” Goode said.

“The clinic wasn’t merely a ‘how to’ class, but was also devoted to ‘why,’ explaining not only how things actually work but how they should work,” said clinic alumnus Wahlberg.  “It was a great blend of idealism, practicality and attitude.”

As the Criminal Defense Clinic grew, Dawson hired a group of young criminal defense attorneys to help supervise the students. They included Hugh Lowe, the clinic’s first supervising attorney, and three other supervising attorneys: Allison, who started in 1975 and retired in 2002; Ken Houp, ’70, who started in 1977; and David Sheppard, ’74, who started in 1985 and retired in 2002.

In 1998, Ken Schubb, ’78, who worked with the clinic for seventeen years, succeeded Dawson as clinic director. And in January 2004, Allison returned to the Law School to direct the clinic after Schubb’s death. (It was Allison who as a supervising attorney in 1977 took a Criminal Defense Clinic case dealing with First Amendment law and free speech to the U.S. Supreme Court and won.)

Currently, the clinic has three highly experienced supervising attorneys. Two of the supervisors—Houp and Patricia Cummings—are board certified in criminal law by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization. The third supervisor, Richard Segura Jr., ’93, is the only former Criminal Defense Clinic student ever to hold the position of supervising attorney.

Students working in the clinic represent indigent defendants charged with misdemeanors in Travis County. Typical offenses include DWI, theft, assault, and drug possession.

The classroom component of the clinic emphasizes the nuts and bolts of criminal defense. In the clinic’s simulation component, students learn and practice negotiation and trial skills. Students function as “first chair” attorneys, with the supervisors sitting as “second chair” during court proceedings. Students arrange jail releases, interview clients and witnesses, litigate pretrial issues, negotiate with prosecutors, and try cases before judges and juries.

For three and a half decades, this clinical experience has played a key role in the education of participating students. “These students have come back to us over and over to say two things: ‘this was the best course I ever took,’ and, ‘it made all my other courses so much more interesting,’” Allison said.

Related links:

Criminal Defense Clinic

Contact: Kirston Fortune, Assistant Dean for Communications, (512) 471.7330 or kfortune@law.utexas.edu.