For students in last fall’s Criminal Defense Clinic, learning the law went hand-in-hand with successfully defending the constitutional rights of two separate clients.
On one exciting day last fall, Caitlin Conway L’23 and Gordon Estes L’23 each secured enormous wins for their respective clients during the same morning at a Philadelphia courthouse. The Criminal Defense Clinic (CDC) students successfully argued motions to suppress illegally obtained evidence in felony drug cases.
In both instances, winning the motion to suppress protected clients’ constitutional rights and resulted in the State’s dropping all felony charges.
“It was one of the highlights of my career watching this happen,” said Lecturer in Law and Defender Association of Philadelphia attorney Tess Senderowicz. “I’ve done these kinds of motions myself many, many, many, many times. It’s thrilling every time it happens, but to see it come to fruition for two law students with whom I had worked so closely throughout this semester — I saw how much effort they had put in, and I saw how much they cared — and for it to result in such a wonderful outcome for the clients was one of the best things I’ve ever experienced.”
One of the Gittis Legal Clinics at the University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School, the CDC enables students to practice essential lawyering skills as they represent real clients under the supervision of lawyers at the Defender Association of Philadelphia. In the CDC, students assist clients in a range of matters in and related to criminal court, gaining valuable experience in courtroom advocacy, legal writing, and litigation strategy. As in other clinical courses, CDC students also receive academic instruction and close mentoring by expert faculty.
Bringing Passion to Advocacy
Both Conway and Estes enrolled in the CDC with a strong interest in public defense work.
Conway worked in housing law during her 1L summer and noticed that many of her clients were navigating collateral criminal justice issues while simultaneously tending to housing matters. That experience inspired her to intern in a public defender office during her 2L summer, which solidified her desire to work in criminal defense.
“I knew I wanted to do the Criminal Defense Clinic,” Conway said. “I wanted an opportunity to work with clients in the Philly community; I thought that was really important.”
Prior to law school, Estes worked as a legislative aid to three New Jersey State officials and gained an interest in public service work. A mentor in the legal field encouraged him to explore public defense.
“In law school, I’ve had a chance to learn a lot about criminal defense work, advocacy, legal work in general, and public interest work,” Estes said. “Getting to work at the Clinic and get real practical experience in a courtroom — not the theoretical stuff you put down in an issue spotter, but actually figuring out how to work with a judge, how to work with opposing counsel, how to talk with your client, and how all the practical stuff actually goes down — was incredibly useful.”
Honing Practical Skillsets
Fortuitously, the cases that Senderowicz assigned Conway and Estes last fall involved a very similar issue: the potential suppression of illegally obtained evidence that, if successful, could result in the Commonwealth’s withdrawal of felony charges for possession with intent to deliver. The case had major ramifications for both clients. People with felony drug convictions often face difficulties beyond criminal penalties, such as lasting barriers to employment and housing. Since the evidence in these cases was obtained illegally, the CDC students were advocating for their clients’ constitutional rights as well as for their futures.
Conway and Estes each had about two weeks to prepare their respective motions to suppress. In that process, they reviewed discovery documents, including police reports and interviews, with a critical eye, looking out for any potential contradictions or holes in the story.
“We were preparing for motions and, in the event that the motion lost, to go to trial,” Conway said. “We had to prepare for several different outcomes…. I was looking at the facts and the law like a flow chart. That was new, in terms of thinking on my feet and adjusting to a situation as it arises, and it was a really great skill to get the chance to practice.”
In addition to researching the law and writing persuasive motions to suppress, Conway and Estes had to cross-examine the law enforcement officers who took the stand to justify their actions in obtaining the evidence.
Throughout this process, both Conway and Estes underscored the responsibility they felt in zealously advocating for their clients.
“I felt like I had a much better appreciation for what it means to stake out a claim in your client’s corner and find the space to argue and be a good advocate,” Estes said. “One of the most immediately fulfilling and satisfying things was the structure of taking the facts and the legal standards and weaving them together into a story that has a conclusion of: ‘and this is why my client wins.’”
Advocating in the Courtroom
The day before the hearing, Senderowicz tested positive for COVID-19.
“I had been walking in solidarity with them and with the clients for the entire time that they were prepping, and I was so excited for this to happen. Then, the day before court, I tested positive.”
Fortunately, one of Senderowicz’s colleagues stepped in to supervise Conway and Estes. The Commonwealth had offered both clients plea deals; after consulting with Conway and Estes, both clients declined the deals and instead chose to proceed with the motions to suppress.
“I communicated [the plea deal] to the client and they said, ‘No, go for it. I trust you.’ That was really great, but it also made me very, very nervous,” Conway said. “I didn’t want to let my client down after they said that they trusted me.”
Even though they were confident that the law was on their side, Conway, Estes, and Senderowicz all still felt relieved and elated when the judge granted both motions.
“While we were making the argument, I got the sense that the judge was leaning our way, so I was feeling hopeful, but you never know until [the judge starts explaining their findings],” Estes said. “It turned out the way that we wanted. I’m very glad for it because my client was really banking on the outcome that we got, and so I’m glad that we were able to do that for them.”
Launching Careers with Confidence
Following graduation, both Conway and Estes plan to pursue careers related to criminal justice. Conway will join Senderowicz at the Defender Association of Philadelphia, and Estes will clerk for the Honorable Jessica Mayer of the New Jersey Superior Court, Appellate Division for the 2023-2024 term.
“I want the Clinic to be a place for all law students, not just those who specifically have career goals in public defense, because the skills we’re working on are broadly applicable. But it just so happens that these two are taking it forward in their future careers,” Senderowicz said.
Learn more about experiential learning opportunities through the Gittis Legal Clinics.