by Chris Stevenson J.D. ’21
I became interested in Harvard’s Criminal Justice Appellate Clinic (CJAC) when I applied to Harvard Law School as a transfer student. Indeed, it was one of the chief drivers of my desire to transfer because I believed (rightly so, as it turns out) that it was the type of work I came to law school hoping to do. The CJAC is an incredible learning opportunity. It is hard to overstate the value of this clinic for those students interested in criminal justice work and appellate litigation more generally. In terms of mentorship, substantive legal learning, legal writing practice, and strategic litigation experience, the CJAC is unparalleled.
It was a joy to learn from the instructors, Amir Ali and Devi Rao, and to receive their guidance throughout the semester. Both Amir and Devi were always friendly and approachable, and they were willing to help and talk through problems as they arose. Although they were always humble about it, their combined appellate litigation experience is both extensive and impressive. Throughout my time at the CJAC, I picked up many tips and tricks simply from working under them. In addition, they were very willing to talk about their experiences clerking, litigating cases at both the appellate level and the Supreme Court, and preparing for oral arguments. In short, working under Devi and Amir, in addition to the interesting work they had for us, made the clinic a great experience.
The CJAC helped me to better understand substantive legal doctrine in at least three different subject matters. First, as part of the seminar that accompanies the clinic, Devi and Amir taught us about different areas of legal doctrine that are seminal in their work. These included subjects such as qualified immunity, the Prison Litigation Reform Act, and Monell liability, which are rarely taught in formal law school classes. Furthermore, I found it especially interesting to learn about specific legal doctrines in the context of impact litigation, which is a very different way of thinking about the law. Second, through our research for the MacArthur Justice Center’s active cases, I learned about various legal issues within the broader subjects and the ways in which different circuits apply the law slightly differently. Third, the CJAC was invaluable for learning about procedural doctrines that often affect a party’s ability to appeal. While a little dry at times, learning and understanding the various ways in which a case’s procedural posture can preclude any appellate review is a valuable learning experience for anyone hoping to clerk or work in litigation broadly. In sum, the CJAC offers a fantastic hands-on learning experience that has given me valuable skills that I will take with me throughout the rest of my career.
In addition to learning more substantive law, the CJAC gave me the opportunity to further hone my legal writing and argumentation skills. I have come to realize how rare it is in law school, especially doctrinal classes, to get real practice with and feedback on legal writing. Out of the gates in the CJAC, I was tasked with writing a full appellate brief in an active case. While daunting at first, it was an incredible learning experience. Outside of 1L legal writing, few people get to write a full appellate brief until much further into their legal careers. I appreciated the CJAC’s confidence in us, support along the way, and helpful feedback on drafts. Moreover, the experience of working on a real appellate brief in a real legal setting with real stakes was also much different than legal writing in law school settings. The process was far more collaborative than in the classroom. We frequently discussed the order of arguments, phrasing of certain sentences, use of specific words, ways to avoid certain counterarguments, etc. This way of writing helped me to learn much more about the subject matter of the suit and was simultaneously reassuring and affirming.
Finally, I enjoyed learning much more about the strategy involved in appellate litigation. It was super interesting (and dare I say fun in law school?) thinking simultaneously about the substance of the legal doctrine we had to make our argument and the way in which we wanted to present those arguments. For example, we considered whether to make certain arguments in an opening brief versus the eventual reply brief and we considered whether certain positive arguments would make us vulnerable to attacks. While this describes elements of appellate litigation generally, these are not skills that can easily be taught in a traditional classroom setting.
In sum, the CJAC is an incredibly learning opportunity, and am I am glad to have taken part. If I could do it again, I would.