The University of Alabama School of Law’s Criminal Defense Clinic has been operating for more than 25 years. And despite changes in laws, changes in clinic directors, and even paradigm-shifting changes in technology, perhaps no change has been as big as the change brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The spring was difficult,” said Amy Kimpel, Assistant Professor of Clinical Legal Instruction and Director of the Criminal Defense Clinic. “The students had four misdemeanor trials set for March and April and then courts closed due to the pandemic.” The trials were postponed and the students enrolled in the spring 2020 Clinic course graduated before new trial dates were set.
But neither the court closings nor the University of Alabama’s move to virtual instruction stopped the Clinic’s work. Kimpel quickly re-thought the rest of the semester, remaining committed to providing students opportunities that would help build their skills and serve Clinic clients. “The Clinic students pivoted to working on template motions to reconsider sentences and bail in light of the coronavirus and started working more on post-conviction relief cases,” she said.
“I feel like working in the Clinic during the pandemic gave me a glimpse of the future of law practice—digital files, digital communications, digital meetings, and even a digital workroom,” said Allen Slater, a third-year student. “It gave me some ideas about how I might like to run a practice of my own in the future.”
In preparing for the fall 2020 semester, Kimpel knew her students would be back in the courtroom and would need to build skill-sets that no faculty member had ever taught before. “I added pieces to the curriculum about client counseling on Zoom, communicating with clients effectively in masks, and trial practice during the time of COVID-19,” she said.
“We’ve also used the increased familiarity with Zoom to host panels with public defenders and prosecutors all over the country.” Panelists logged in from as far away as New York and California and even included a member of the Law School’s class of 2020 and an alumna of the Criminal Defense Clinic.
”It was an incredible experience. I feel privileged to have had the opportunity to speak with and learn from them,” Slater said.
When they aren’t in court representing their clients this semester, Criminal Defense Clinic students are honing their skills with highly realistic practice sessions. Recently, Northport Municipal Judge Paul Patterson (‘98) hosted Clinic students for a mock suppression hearing. At the mock hearing, with facts based on an actual past case, students also had the opportunity to examine new officers with the Northport Police Department, who participated as witnesses.
“The main goal is for us to get simulated exercise on what a suppression hearing looks like,” third-year student Reave Shewmake said. “And also the officers getting practice on being cross examined by different attorneys.”
Speaking about the value of applying the skills she teaches, Kimpel said, “Students had to think through, on their own, the interactions between officer and client, and had an opportunity to cross-examine an actual police officer.”
“It was just a collaborative effort from all of us here trying to give back to the community to help law enforcement and the law school,” Patterson said.
Ultimately, the Clinic is designed to help students apply what they are learning in the classroom to real-world legal problems. Of the students, Kimpel says, “Many are going right from campus to picking up hefty caseloads. Experiences like these help develop confidence to practice right after the bar. The clinic is a bridge between those experiences.”