The School of Law's Children's Defense Clinic offers law students the opportunity to represent children and adolescents in local juvenile courts. One of five in-house clinical programs, the Children's Defense Clinic is a litigation-oriented clinic that focuses on the needs of at-risk children and adolescents. 

Under the supervision of Assistant Clinical Professor and Director Julie McConnell, each semester eight students have the opportunity to advocate on behalf of children appearing before local juvenile courts. Students serve as defense counsel for youth accused of delinquency offenses and work a minimum of 24 hours each week. Equipped with the third-year practice certificate, students are able to appear before local courts when accompanied by a licensed practitioner. Occasionally, students are also assigned to work as guardians ad litem on other cases which involve children's issues, such as abuse and neglect.

Previously called the Juvenile Delinquency Clinic, the program first started in the late seventies by former UR Law Professor Robert Shepherd and was supervised for many years by Prof. Kelley Bartges. After being out of operation for two years following Bartges's death, McConnell reintroduced the clinic last fall.

During the semester-long clinic, students participate in a variety of activities, including client interviewing and counseling, fact investigation, case planning, report writing, motions drafting, and courtroom advocacy. The clinic is open to second and third year students, although students must have their third-year practice certificates in order to appear in court.

Kati Kitts, L'13, said one of the reasons she was interested in Richmond Law was the opportunity to participate in the school's in-house clinics that focus on providing legal assistance to juveniles. Following her 2L year, Kitts first worked at the Education Rights Clinic where she had the opportunity to collaborate with the Children's Defense Clinic on a case. She said, "I got to see a little bit what the Defense Clinic was about." Having primarily focused on civil law in classes and previous internships, Kitts wanted to expand her horizons. "One of the reasons for doing the Defense Clinic was to get in front of a judge and move a little bit outside of what's been my comfort zone so far."

Kitts just experienced her first trial, which she said was a bit nerve racking, but also kind of exciting. "I'm really glad I got to [experience a trial] as a student with a supervising attorney sitting right there. It's definitely more intimidating, but a lot more fun when it's a real client and there are real stakes." She said it was also a great experience to figure out all of the details associated with a trial such as filing the necessary forms.

Kitts explained that students working in the Children's Defense Clinic serve as court-appointed counsel for qualifying juvenile clients. "We have clients in Richmond, Hanover, Henrico, all over the place," added Kitts. Once appointed to a case, Kitts said, "We had to interview the client, get their side, and see if there were any legal or evidentiary issues we could spot that would make the case worth trying rather than trying to plead."

For the rest of the semester, Kitts and fellow students will be working to wrap up other cases assigned to the Children's Defense Clinic. A few of those cases will continue into the Spring semester, so a new group of clinic students will pick up where Kitts and her team left off. Kitts noted that she was glad to have had the opportunity to see a case all the way through to completion during her time at the clinic.

Kitts said she really enjoyed working with the children and adolescents served by the clinic. Before law school, she spent a year working for AmeriCorps in a Richmond City elementary school. That experience led her to become interested in special education issues. She explained, "I feel very strongly about defense work—which I really didn't know until this semester—I feel like children's defense is really important work to be doing." She also came to the realization that she enjoyed working in criminal law.

Kitts also currently works part-time for the Virginia Office for Protection and Advocacy (VOPA), a state agency that provides advocacy services and legal representation for people with disabilities and special education issues. Having experience working with special education issues at the Education Rights Clinic, Kitts said, was important in applying for an internship at VOPA.

Kitts said the best part of working for the Children's Defense Clinic was getting practical experience. "It's just not something you can get in a classroom." She said she really had no criminal or courtroom experience before joining the clinic, so the experience has influenced her career plans. She's been on track to focus on special education after she graduates, but now she is considering a future in criminal defense. She explained, "It really has been much more fun than I was anticipating, so it has made me waiver a little bit from my one-track plan. I am now much more open to criminal work." She added, "Both of my clinic experiences were awesome, and I have recommended them to friends."