Faculty Spotlight

Jenny Roberts
Professor of Criminal Law, Associate Dean for Scholarship, and Co-Director of the Criminal Justice Clinic 

Q: Tell us a little about yourself.
A: I co-direct the Criminal Justice Clinic (CJC) at WCL. I also teach first-year Criminal Law, and am the Associate Dean for Scholarship, which refers to the legal scholarship of our faculty. My own scholarship is closely connected to my teaching, as I write about the lower criminal courts (CJC students represent clients in misdemeanor and juvenile courts in Montgomery County Maryland), plea bargaining, and the right to counsel in criminal cases.

Q: Why did you choose this career path? 
A: Clinical teaching allows me to combine my long-standing commitment to a more just criminal system with my passion for teaching and encouraging students to pursue public interest careers. I didn’t always plan to be a law professor, but once I started teaching a clinic (first at Syracuse, then at WCL), I knew I had found the best job in the world. I love coming to work every day, because of the fabulous clinic students that work so tirelessly for their clients. I also greatly enjoy introducing my 1L students to criminal law, and try to bring some of my clinical teaching methods into the larger classroom to allow them to learn more interactively and to get a realistic view of the many injustices in our criminal justice system.

Q: How did you get involved in Clinical Legal Education?
A: I started my teaching career in the Lawyering program at NYU law school, my alma mater. That program—which is a first-year course at NYU—teaches students legal research and writing, client interviewing and counseling, negotiation, and oral advocacy through a series of simulations. We had actors play clients, and students would research a problem, then counsel the client about the possible solutions to that problem.  I fully embraced this experiential method (learning by doing), but missed working with real clients to help them solve real problems. Teaching in a criminal justice clinic allowed me to continue teaching experientially while working with students committed to zealous representation of clients in criminal cases.

Q: Is there a particular case you are most proud of?
A: As a long-time criminal defense lawyer, I steer clear of talking to the press about my clients’ cases (I know you aren’t really the press…).  But there are real issues of confidentiality in talking about particular cases, so let me be more general. I’m proud of all of the important work my clinic students do on behalf of clients. Often, it’s the seemingly small, yet really critical, lawyering tasks that make me the most proud. Watching a student team in the Criminal Justice Clinic go through a client’s options with him in a careful, thorough way that allows that client to make a truly informed decision about whether to go to trial or instead accept a plea offer makes me very proud, and reassures me that these students are well on their way to becoming excellent lawyers. It makes me proud to watch students push hard in a negotiation with a prosecutor, not in an obnoxious manner but in a way that helps the prosecutor understand our client’s goals and see the longer-term picture of how a criminal record might harm our client’s long-term employment, housing, and other life prospects. While there is really no feeling like standing next to a client when the judge (we do bench trials) says “not guilty” or “motion for a judgment of acquittal is granted,” most cases do not go to trial. Rather, it’s the many other things the students do—leading up to a dismissal, a favorable plea offer, or a sentence mitigated by strong sentencing advocacy--that often matter most to the client.

Q: What other work have you done recently?
A: Over much of this past winter break, I wrote an amicus brief in Lee v. United States, a U.S. Supreme Court case about the Sixth Amendment right to the effective assistance of counsel in a criminal case. 3Ls Christy Moehrle and Roberto Martinez, and 2L Aaron Garavaglia, helped me out with the brief, which we wrote on behalf of three national public interest organizations that work at the intersection of criminal and immigration law. It was an intense few weeks, but well worth it.  Christy and Rob were able to join me in attending the oral argument, and then got to debrief the case with Mr. Lee’s counsel on the steps of the Supreme Court. We found out today, just before I started writing this, that Mr. Lee won! In a 6-2 decision penned by Justice Roberts, the Court held that Mr. Lee demonstrated that he was prejudiced by his trial lawyer’s erroneous advice that he would not be deported if he pled guilty to a drug sale.

Q: Is there any advice you would give to law students wanting to get more involved in the public interest arena? 
A: More than I can fit here, but let me give it a try. Pick a couple of areas where you think you can make a difference, and work on making that difference. Some WCL students try to do too many things, and it’s hard to do things well when you are doing too much. Focus and effectiveness are important. In your first year, that might mean volunteering with one of OPI’s projects, such as working with the Homeless Persons Representation Project on their expungement initiative. Later, you should be doing summer internships and a term-time externship and, of course, participating in a clinic. Externships expose you to the day-to-day work in a particular office, where you are generally working for one or more attorneys. In clinic, you are the lawyer, doing the actual work yourself (with the supervision of a clinical faculty member). Prospective public interest employers like to see both. It is very easy for me to speak enthusiastically to a potential public interest employer if I can say that a student offered the type of client representation that would make me want to hire them, if I were hiring at my old job as a public defender.