By the time he took his first class in law school, Joe McPeak, Class of 2012, had already logged thousands of hours in federal courtrooms.
McPeak took a job after college making computerized recordings of trial proceedings at the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, which demystified the litigation process.
“Seeing it go on made lawyers seem less intimidating,” McPeak said.
Once a law student, McPeak found one of the swiftest pathways back to the courtroom by registering for the Criminal Litigation Field Clinic, which the law school operates in partnership with the Defender Association of Philadelphia.
There, McPeak gained the confidence born of early successes representing criminal defendants, under the supervision of some of Philadelphia’s finest advocates.
“It was awesome,” he said, recounting a trial in which he defended a man charged with stealing material from a construction site. Although his client was found with metal in his truck nearby the site, McPeak identified “chain of custody issues” that helped produce a “not guilty” verdict.
Through the clinic, McPeak also enjoyed a “surprise victory,” prevailing on a motion to suppress drug-possession evidence in the case of a defendant who had been ready to cave in.
“He didn’t want to fight at first,” said McPeak, who was able to convince the client that he held a strong hand. “His words were ‘I’m gonna roll with you,’ and then we won.”
Now a staff attorney at the Defender Association, McPeak finds himself handling a vastly heavier volume of cases, representing defendants across Northwest Philadelphia.
The immersion in the culture of criminal defense seems complete each time the young lawyer refers to a client as “my guy.”
Yet McPeak has no illusions about the negativity with which many of “his guys” view the legal system itself, or even those who work as public defenders.
“You’ll always meet people with different attitudes, different predilections,” McPeak said. “I always say, ‘You don’t know me from a can of paint, but I have your file and I’m ready to handle your case.’”
McPeak explained that he’s gained tremendous confidence in those files, which result from the very thorough interviews that other attorneys from the Defender Association have completed. Defendants often dislike the association’s process of assigning different attorneys to represent them at different stages of the legal process, McPeak added.
“But it’s a good way of representing zillions and zillions of clients we have every day,” he said.
Adjusting to that massive caseload is indeed a challenge, McPeak said, but taking Criminal Procedure with a professor like Donald Tibbs and gaining hands-on experience through a program like the clinic can make the transition to professional practice quite smooth.
“My advice to prospective students? Definitely get as much hands-on experience as possible,” McPeak said. “Do a clinic or a co-op.”