Philadelphia has its share of criminals, aggressive police, unfit parents and truant teens who create a measure of mayhem in pockets of the city.
Increasingly, the professionals who must pass a legal comb through that chaos earned their JDs at Drexel University and got their first taste of legal practice through the law school’s co-op and clinic programs.
Dozens of Kline School of Law alumni now spend many of their days racing to and from the city’s Criminal Justice Center, prosecuting crimes on behalf of the Philadelphia District Attorney or representing the accused on behalf of the Defender Association of Philadelphia.
“You can never truly be prepared for how crazy it is; that’s a function of the criminal justice system,” said Tracy Tripp, ’10, one of 17 Kline School of Law alumni who joined the Defender’s Office in 2012. “The pace of it all is something you have to experience to actually understand.”
That said, Tripp said she felt better prepared than some colleagues for the rigors of the job.
“You can’t beat the fact that we just have a lot of solid practical training that you don’t get at other law schools,” she said.
While Temple University used to be the chief source of talent for the DA’s office, Drexel appears to be filling that role more, said Sam Haaz, 12.
“In the last three incoming classes, there’ve been as many Drexel alums and Temple alums,” Haaz said, adding that the DA’s office cares more about competence than an alma mater. “They expect that everyone they hire is going to develop into an excellent prosecutor and a great trial attorney…They’re hiring in numbers that suggest the office has a lot of confidence in Drexel.”
Both the DA and PD require incoming attorneys to gain experience with lesser crimes in municipal court before tackling major cases involving guns, but alumni on both sides of the aisle have begun handling shootings, robberies at gunpoint, burglaries and other significant charges.
Colleen Swim, ’12, who works in the PD’s Child Advocacy Unit, is handling about 170 cases of children abused or neglected by parents or are truant, “incorrigible” or awaiting adoption.
While Swim’s victories will never gain the caché of a major acquittal, she takes satisfaction in producing powerful outcomes for her clients, like finalizing adoptions or facilitating visits with loving and stable grandparents.
“It’s amazing how this isn’t taken seriously,” Swim said. “Every study in the world will show you the correlation between taking care of children when they’re young and having good, crime-free lives.”
The burden of representing indigent criminal defendants can take an emotional toll, Mike Benz, ’12, acknowledged.
“It’s fun to be a rebel and fight the system. It’s also frustrating,” Benz said, contending there is little recognition for the importance of representing a clientele who’ve carried guns illegally, even if life dealt them losing hands.
“There are very few people who will not get behind someone who is factually innocent,” Benz said. “It takes a special kind of attorney to defend someone who did do it. The average citizen is not a supporter.”
Divergent views on crime and punishment can even strain relationships between longtime friends, Benz said, alluding to his bond with Haaz, a classmate and fellow Trial Team coach who he’s faced in the same courtroom on many occasions.
“Sam and I are very good friends,” Benz said. “We’ve learned not to talk about work when we get together socially…We do a nice job of trying to resolve things amicably and are respectful of each other.”
Haaz agreed, noting that their mutual respect has enabled them to negotiate fair compromises without “bluffing or posturing.”
The cases “all hit home in a different way,” said Eddie Grant, ’12, who convinced the mother of a defendant he prosecuted that it was better for her son to go to jail for a parole violation than be given an opportunity to endanger his family.
“She sent me a card, thanking me,” Grant said. “Things like that are more significant to me than the stuff that makes headlines.”
Though the grind leaves assistant DAs “totally destroyed, totally exhausted,” Grant said Drexel had prepared them well.
“We come back the next morning,” Grant said. “I think the victims can relate to that. We are getting into the mud and working for it.”