Program helps train law students
Attorneys will tell you: Law school does a great job teaching the law, but when it comes to the practice of it, not so much. There is something about standing before a judge and making that first argument that moot court doesn't prepare you for.
Nicole Limper knows the feeling. Limper, a second-year law student, made her first appearance before a judge in a civil commitment hearing not too long ago. Such appearances are a prosaic part of the Olmsted County Attorney's Office's workload, but for someone with opening-day "jitters," it could have been an appearance before the U.S. Supreme Court.
Several weeks later, Limper, 24, now approaches such responsibilities more comfortably and confidently, having appeared before judges multiple times.
"I don't feel sick every time I go to court," Limper said. "I'm more comfortable every time I go up there."
Limper is one several area law clerks who are learning how to function and operate in a courtroom, thanks to a student-attorney program run by the Olmsted County Attorney's Office.
The program, begun five years ago, is earning a reputation among career counselors as a gateway to invaluable courtroom experiences for aspiring attorneys. Instead of being locked away in a dusty law library, researching and writing legal briefs, these law clerks are making arguments before judges.
And as the 12-week summer program has developed, the county attorney's office has discovered and nurtured a vein of budding legal minds in the area. All four of the attorney's office law clerks are graduates from the Rochester area. Including Limper, a Mayo High School graduate, they include Micheal DeBolt, 24, of Century, Amanda Roberson, 25, of Zumbrota-Mazeppa, and Mickey Stevens, 23, of Century.
"In terms of actually being able to appear in court, having to make arguments and think critically on your feet, this is one of the best opportunities available in the entire state," Roberson said.
Olmsted County Attorney Mark Ostrem was unsure what he would get when he started the program five years ago. Since the state's law schools are located in the Twin Cities, there was no guarantee that it would even draw any applicants to the area.
"It was just to see if we could get some benefit from law clerks, being able to make some appearances, write some briefs," Ostrem said. "We found out that it was very helpful to us. We completely rely on them."
The law clerks tend to be particularly helpful in the summer months, when the workload of the county attorney's office can get particularly heavy. Add the need to schedule vacations for the office's attorneys, and their role has become nearly invaluable.
But what truly surprised Ostrem was the caliber and the acuity of the law clerks that now work for his office.
"I didn't envision that we would have this quality," Ostrem said. "These are incredibly talented young people."
Ostrem's office began to realize other benefits. As many of the first law clerks turned out to have Rochester connections, the rationale behind the program evolved — as a way to strengthen and bolster the legal profession in the Rochester area.
Those long-term ripple effects already are happening. One of the program's first clerks was Staci Amundson, who now serves as an assistant Olmsted County attorney and is a mentor and supervisor to today's law clerks.
Amundson said brainstorming sessions are regularly held to discuss ways to improve the program. Over time, features such as touring the adult detention center and going on ride-alongs with Rochester police have been added. The idea, she said, is to broaden a clerk's experiences and understanding beyond the courtroom, from a crime's origins to its consequences.
"We send people to jail everyday, but if we don't know what the inside of a jail looks like, I think that's an experience that's lacking," Ostrem said. "And if they don't get it here, when will they get the opportunity?"
Law clerks are allowed to argue in court as long as they have completed one year of law school and remain in good standing with the school. They also must be certified by a state, local or nonprofit as working for that agency.
Amundson said she doesn't send law clerks into a courtroom until she knows they are ready. The process is gradual. The clerks will first observe a court hearing. When they do appear in court in front of a judge for the first time, they do it in the company of one of the office's attorneys. Eventually, they are flying solo.
The cases they argue are not high-stakes, but typically involve simple cases that make up a big part of an attorney's office's workload, from overnight arrests to custody arrangements to low-level domestic assaults to traffic offenses.
And how does Amundson know when a law clerk is ready for the big leagues of the courtroom? You can tell from the questions, she says.
"Once they've asked as many insightful questions as they can and they're out of questions, you know that they understand things," Amundson said. "You feel comfortable that should an issue arise, they are ready to deal with it."
For student-attorneys like DeBolt, the courtroom experiences are giving him a leg up with both his law school studies and career goals. A third-year law student, Debolt is in his second year with the program. The program, he says, has exposed him to cases and legal issues that only later did he study in law school.
It also is important to Debolt that he's working in Rochester, a place where he plans to establish his legal career.
"If you feel attached to the community, it's more meaningful to you," DeBolt said. "We (help) make the community safe, where your family and friends live and where you grew up. That's definitely important."