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Aspiring lawyers hone skills in criminal law clinic

David Welter, right, a professor at the Valparaiso University School of Law works with a student as part of the school's law clinic.

Jon L. Hendricks, Valparaiso University

VALPARAISO — Established more than 30 years ago, the Valparaiso University School of Law’s criminal law clinic offers something not many others do.

“We’re one of a few where students engage in high-level felony trials,” said David Welter, the clinic’s director and a law professor at Valpo.

Since Welter became director in the mid-1990s, the number of annual cases handled by the clinic has grown from about half a dozen to between 100 and 150.

A licensed law firm, the clinic enables third-year law students to gain experience while providing free or low-cost legal services to clients charged with misdemeanors or felonies.

“The clinic has handled everything from a kid drinking beer to murder,” Welter said.

Cases also have included drunk driving, drug possession, drug dealing, child molestation, incest, rape, domestic battery, bigamy, animal hoarding and a client who was the victim of a scam.

Between 40 and 50 percent of cases involve charges related to drugs or alcohol. There has been an increase in the number of cases involving heroin and methamphetamines, Welter said.

While a majority of clients are appointed by the courts, walk-ins also are taken, Welter said.

Most of the clinic's clients are not poor enough to qualify for a public defender, but they also can’t afford a private attorney. They fall into a “gray area,” Welter said.

The clinic also often works with clients who have various kinds of disabilities, he said.

With a special license from the Indiana Supreme Court, the law students engage in a full range of lawyering duties: conducting discovery, preparing and arguing motions, negotiating plea agreements, and representing clients at all court proceedings, including bench and jury trials.

Students have argued cases before the Indiana Supreme Court and the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, Welter said.

Like most law firms, about 98 percent of the clinic's cases do not go to trial because a plea agreement is reached or charges have been dropped or dismissed.

In cases that do reach trial, however, students gain valuable courtroom experience.

“You can see their confidence grow in their ability,” Welter said. “This is a great system for a law student to be in if they really want to see the whole gamut.”

For more information about the criminal law clinic, contact Welter at (219) 465-7903.