One of the goals of the law school’s Mentor Externship Program is to connect each law student with a practicing attorney who can give them practical advice and guidance they can use in law school and their career. In his summer position with the Wright County Public Defender’s Office, 2L Riley Smith found himself reflecting back on his conversations with his mentor, and St. Thomas Law alumna, Nicole Kettwick ’07, ’10 J.D., as he interacted with clients.
“She instilled in me a sense of compassion toward people going through the criminal justice system,” Smith said. “Criminal acts are obviously bad and deserving of punishment, but the person behind the charge is rarely a truly evil person.”
Smith also credits his criminal law Professor Julie Jonas with shaping his mindset and preparing him for the work of a public defender, which can be rewarding but also challenging. While Smith’s goal was always to be as helpful as possible to clients and work in their best interests, not all of them were easy to work with.
“Over the summer I found myself quoting either Professor Jonas or Mrs. Kettwick every time someone would ask me how I could stomach working in criminal defense,” he said. “Even on the days when, after a specifically frustrating string of client interviews, I would find myself questioning why I was doing this, I’d return back to that sense of compassion I gleaned from them. Every person is deserving of the same fair and equal treatment before the law.”
Smith pursued his position with the Wright County Public Defender’s Office as part of St. Thomas Law’s off-campus Fredrikson & Byron Public Interest Externship Program, which, like the Mentor Externship Program, offers students the opportunity to earn credit and explore legal careers.
As a certified student attorney at the public defender’s office, Smith was responsible for the “bail calendar,” and met with in-custody clients before representing them in their first appearance before a judge.
“On behalf of my clients, I would make arguments for conditions of release, help navigate any admissions or denials of violations and facilitate any plea deals between my client and the prosecutor,” Smith said.
He says his favorite part of his externship was the opportunity to work alongside and learn from the attorneys in the office. Smith was appreciative of how welcoming the staff and attorneys in the public defender’s office were to him.
“Every attorney I interacted with was very friendly and helpful,” he said. “I was really encouraged by seeing a slice of the legal community do everything they could to help the next generation of lawyers.”
Smith says his experience in the Wright County Public Defender’s office has been impactful in helping him figure out his future career path and he has even been invited to continue his externship during the fall semester.
“I plan to pursue a career in criminal law, however I’m undecided as to what side of the proverbial coin I’d like to practice,” he said. “I think my personality and interests are a better fit for defensive work and over the summer I really found that I enjoyed my time with the public defender’s office.”