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July 2011

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This article is in the news archives --- for current news go to the Third Branch News.

 

Mentoring Program Adds Diversity to CJA Panel


An innovative mentoring program in the Southern District of New York is giving local practitioners federal court experience and in the process giving more minorities and women the skills to serve on the district's Criminal Justice Act (CJA) panel.

The district's Criminal Justice Act Mentoring Program pairs experienced attorneys from its CJA panel as mentors to attorneys who have an interest in applying to the panel but who lack knowledge of the federal system. The mentees learn by assignment to a case of sufficient complexity to warrant the services of two attorneys.

"They're sitting at their mentor's elbow," said Judge John G. Koeltl, chair of the district's Defender Services Committee, "but it's very proactive. They're there to observe, but also to do substantive work. They make contributions to cases, in terms of writing and court appearances."

A typical "teaching" case would be one where the mentor received a regular CJA appointment that presented many of the representation issues an attorney might encounter in a federal case, including bail and release, discovery review, guidelines calculation and sentencing factors, plea negotiation, client interviewing and conferences, legal research and writing, and possible evidentiary hearing or trial. In addition, the mentees work with their mentors on other CJA cases.

Mentees are required to provide the first 15 hours of service free of charge. After that, they bill for their hours at a rate that is substantially lower than the hourly rate for court-appointed attorneys. There's also an educational requirement. Mentees must complete a minimum of six continuing legal education credits that focus on federal criminal practice skills and attend seminars and workshops.

Completing the program is no guarantee of being appointed to the CJA panel, which is a highly selective and competitive process. But the results are encouraging. Over the last two years, four of the program's "graduates" have been selected to serve on the CJA panel, adding to the panel's diversity.

Koeltl works with co-directors Peter Quijano and Anthony Ricco, two experienced CJA attorneys who developed the program and who are responsible for overseeing the recruitment of mentors and mentees. They designed the program to prepare attorneys for the challenges of federal practice and eventual CJA panel representation. The Southern District of New York's Board of Judges adopted the mentoring program in 2008.

"There are different substantive law and different procedures in federal practice," said Koeltl, "and many state court practitioners do not qualify for the panel because they lack federal experience."

"But we're not here to train someone for trial," adds Quijano. "The program concept is to find experienced state practitioners and help transition them to federal practice. Without background, without knowledge of the resources, protocols and procedures, and rules of federal practice, an attorney could be making critical mistakes and not even be aware."

In fact, mentees need to learn so much, the program length has expanded from 12 months to 18 months. The number of mentors per class also has increased. Other changes have been made as mentors and judges see what works best. The district's judges are supportive, and there has been interest from other districts in beginning their own mentoring programs.

"Our effort is always to get the best lawyer for a defendant," said Koeltl. "The program entails a lot of work, but the quality of applicants has been sterling."

"We're very excited and optimistic about the program," said Quijano. "This is what we tell applicants: if we place you on the panel, in three to four years, you will be one of the outstanding practitioners in federal court—not just an outstanding CJA attorney."