Criminal Defense Externships

Explore criminal defense externships:

Natasha Chokhani, Gregory Herrera, and Shannon Cumberbatch, Lecturers-in-Law​ (2 graded academic and 2 ungraded fieldwork credits)

Course Description
An arrest is never just an arrest. It can prompt the child welfare system to take an infant from a mother's custody, trigger deportation proceedings for a legal permanent resident, and cause the public housing authority to throw an entire family out into the street. An arrest is simply the first stone in an avalanche of dire legal and social consequences.

This externship immerses students in the cutting edge of defense work in the South Bronx, the poorest congressional district in the country. A person of color living in the Bronx is more likely to be stopped and frisked by the police, arrested, evicted, receiving public benefits, or the target of child welfare investigations than a resident of any other county in New York State. Learn interdisciplinary approaches to solving these problems at a public defender office that treats clients as people rather than cases and is committed to addressing both the underlying causes and collateral consequences of criminal justice involvement. Course content and fieldwork will train students as future holistic lawyers offering seamless access to services that meet clients’ legal and social support needs; engaging in the dynamic and interdisciplinary exchange of information, ideas, and strategies; developing and improving interdisciplinary skill sets; and seeking a robust understanding of and connection to the community served.

The Seminar
The weekly classroom component of the Holistic Defender Externship will take place at Columbia, where lecturers-in-law will help the students contextualize their experiences with their clients and the justice system. By addressing topics like racial and class disparity in the justice system, policing policy, and the social history of the South Bronx, students will be able to locate their experiences of individual client representation in the broader discussions of normative social, political, and economic policy. Role-playing, simulations, as well as background reading and real-world case studies, will help inform students and lead them toward mastery of both the theoretical underpinnings of holistic advocacy and the practical aspects of actual client representation.

Learning Through Doing - Fieldwork
By engaging students in the representation of real clients—not only in the criminal justice context but in the civil, housing, immigration, and family areas as well—the externship will expose students to nuts and bolts of Holistic Defense. The Bronx Defenders’ award-winning collaborative approach uses interdisciplinary teams of criminal defense, family defense and civil action lawyers; social workers and investigators to address both the underlying issues that lead to criminal justice involvement and the devastating collateral consequences of arrests and convictions. Students will be paired with a mentor at the office and will have the opportunity to participate firsthand in interdisciplinary team-based representation.

Requirements and Application Process
Students will receive four credits—two graded academic credits for the seminar and two ungraded clinical credits for their fieldwork. The seminar will be graded on weekly class participation, class presentations, and periodic short reflection papers on readings and fieldwork.

The course will be limited to 8 to 12 students to facilitate active engagement and contribution by all. The course will be taught in the fall and spring and is open to J.D. and LL.M. candidates. There are no prerequisites to take this course other than a passion for service in low-income communities.

To apply, please complete the externship application available through LawNet. The application period can be found on the Experiential Learning home page ( Prospective applicants may be contacted for an interview once all applications have been submitted. 

Any additional questions can be sent to Susan Kraham at [email protected].

Mark Zeno and Ben Schatz (Fall)/Arielle Reid (Spring), Lecturers-in-Law (2 graded academic credits, 2 ungraded fieldwork credits, and Minor Writing Credit, which must be registered separately with Registration Services)

Course Description
The Criminal Appeals Externship offers students a hands-on opportunity to sharpen their written and oral advocacy skills, while gaining practical experience drafting a brief on behalf of an indigent defendant in a New York State appellate proceeding. Although the context of the externship is New York criminal appeals, its overarching goal is to teach persuasive written advocacy; it should appeal to all students seeking to develop their advocacy skills, regardless of whether they plan a career in criminal law.

The externship consists of a seminar component and a field component. The weekly classroom seminar focuses on written advocacy, appellate practice, and New York criminal law. For the field component, each student will represent a criminal defendant appealing his or her felony conviction to the New York Supreme Court, Appellate Division, First Department, or the Appellate Term, First Department.

The course is conducted by Mark Zeno and Arielle Reid, senior attorneys with the Center for Appellate Litigation (“CAL”), a Manhattan public defender organization that handles state court appeals for indigent defendants convicted of offenses in Manhattan and the Bronx. The field component will be with CAL. CAL employs cutting-edge advocacy of defendant’s rights, often involving complex constitutional issues ( Grading will be pass-fail.

The externship is not a simulation: Our externship-students’ advocacy has been remarkably successful, resulting in not only meaningful—and sometimes life-changing—relief for our clients, but also important advancements in New York criminal law and procedure, including:

  • Dismissals of felony convictions, see, e.g., People v. Velez, 110 A.D.3d 449 (1st Dep’t 2013)(suspicionless vehicle checkpoint stop that led to recovery of contraband violated Fourth Amendment); People v. Thomas, 87 A.D.3d 867 (1st Dep’t 2011) (assault convictions against the weight of the evidence).
  • Reversals, see, e.g., People v. Soto, 113 A.D.3d 153 (1st Dep’t 2013) (court erred by refusing to admit declaration against penal interest), affirmed, 26 N.Y.3d 455 (2015).
  • Sentence reductions, see, e.g., People v. Umstead, 134 A.D.3d 522 (1st Dep’t 2015) (vacating second-violent-felony-offender adjudication and six-year sentence).
  • People v. McLaughlin, 104 A.D.3d 615, 616 (1st Dep’t 2013) (vacating second-felony-offender adjudication and 16-year sentence); People v. Harris, 67 A.D.3d 612 (1st Dep’t 2008) (vacating persistent-felony-offender adjudication and 15-year-to-life sentence and replacing it with a second-felony-offender adjudication and a two-to-four-year sentence).
  • Discretionary review by the New York Court of Appeals, see, e.g., People v. Isma McGhee, 125.
  • A.D.3d 537 (1st Dep’t 2015), leave granted, 26 N.Y.3d 969 (2015); People v. Pacquette, 112 A.D.3d 405 (1st Dep’t 2013), affirmed, 25 N.Y.575 (2015)
  • Fact-finding hearings, see, e.g., People v. Chanlee, 120 A.D.3d 417 (1st Dep’t 2014) (remitting for hearing to determine whether warrantless forcible entry into defendant’s apartment was supported by exigent circumstances), reversing, _ A.D.3d _, 2015 WL 869409 (1st Dep’t Mar. 3, 2015) (dismissing conviction following evidentiary hearing).

The Seminar
The two-hour seminar meets weekly at the law school. Because it is effective brief writing that—above all else—wins appeals, the seminar’s ultimate goal and persistent theme will be to teach the techniques that will persuade judges to rule favorably for our clients. The seminar also provides the necessary legal context: Early seminar sessions address areas of criminal law and procedure relevant to New York criminal appeals, including the appellate process, the preservation doctrine, scope of review, harmless error, legal insufficiency, and weight-of-the-evidence review. As students begin to focus on their individual cases, sessions address more practical skills, including how to digest an appellate record, how to identify and evaluate issues, how to develop a theory of the case, how to write a statement of facts, and how to craft an effective legal argument. Seminar sessions also explore the ethics of appellate advocacy, teach oral argument techniques, and discuss effective client communications. Seminar sessions consist of lectures, discussions, court field trips, and in-class exercises.

For the supervised brief-writing part of the course, each student reads, digests, and annotates the full appellate record (including motion papers and hearing, trial, and sentence transcripts), researches and selects issues, writes initial and final drafts of the opening appellate brief, and corresponds with clients. Students meet individually with their assigned instructor every other week or more often. Each student is expected to devote at least 10 hours per week during the Fall Semester to his or her assigned appeal. Students have the opportunity to visit their clients at a New York State Correctional Facility if incarcerated. At the discretion of the instructors, students may also draft a reply brief during the Spring Semester and/or orally argue their cases before a five-judge panel of the First Department.

Requirements and Application Process
The course will be limited to six students and will be open to J.D. candidates only. Third- and second-year students are welcome to apply, particularly those who are good writers and who have academic experience or demonstrable experience in criminal law and evidence. Preference will be given to third-year students. 

To apply, please complete the externship application available through LawNet. The application period can be found on the Experiential Learning home page ( Prospective applicants may be contacted for an interview once all applications have been submitted.

Any additional questions can be sent to Susan Kraham at [email protected].

Accepted externs must register for their Minor Writing Credit separately with Registration Services.

Matthew Knecht and Alice Fontier, Lecturers-in-Law (4 ungraded academic and 4 ungraded fieldwork credits)

NOTE: This is a full-year externship. Students must begin this externship in the Fall Semester.

Course Description
The Neighborhood Defender Service of Harlem Community Defense Externship offers students the opportunity to learn about the practice of indigent criminal defense in a community-based setting. Students will learn about aspects of criminal law and procedure related to the movement of a case through the court system and the practical and ethical considerations related to client interviewing and the forming of the attorney-client relationship. They will also engage in critical thought about topics related to criminal defense, including discovery and motion practice, investigations, developing a theory of the case, suppression hearings, disposition advocacy, and trial preparation.

NDS's Community Defense Externship will consist of two tracks: criminal defense and police misconduct. Externs on the criminal defense track will be paired with an attorney for the year and will participate in all aspects of criminal defense representation, including in court experience. Police misconduct externs will provide representation to clients seeking police accountability through filing notices of claim, engaging with the Civilian Complaint Review Board, and pursuing civil rights litigation and engage in policy and related efforts to reform policing in New York. The seminar will explore policing and the criminal legal system, while also teaching practical skills to provide holistic, client-centered representation.

The Neighborhood Defender Service of Harlem Community Defense Externship is a yearlong externship, and consists of a weekly seminar and a placement at the Neighborhood Defender Service of Harlem (NDS). During the field placement, the students will be responsible for all aspects of at least one misdemeanor case, beginning with the client interview and arraignment at New York County Criminal Court. Students will also be matched one-to-one with NDS Staff Attorneys and will spend the year assisting their attorneys in all aspects of their cases, including writing and researching motions, investigations, social service and mitigation work, plea bargaining, and preparing for pre-trial hearings, trials, and sentencing.

The Seminar
The seminar will meet once a week for two hours at the law school. It will provide an in-depth examination of indigent defense generally, and holistic representation as practiced at NDS, specifically. The seminar will also focus heavily on the nuts and bolts of representing the accused in New York County courts. 

For the practicum, students will be assigned to work with NDS Staff Attorneys. Each student will be expected to work at least 10 hours per week as part of the fieldwork component, at the NDS office at 317 Lenox Avenue (near 125th Street stops on the 2&3 and 4&5 subway stops) or in the field. Fieldwork may include, but is not limited to, attendance in court, visiting clients in their homes and/or visiting clients in jails. Students should expect to assist with all aspects of pretrial preparation of cases, as well as be involved in all aspects of litigation should their case proceed to pretrial hearings and/or trial. Students should also expect to perform substantial research and writing as part of the work. Students who are assigned primary responsibility for a substantial piece of written work in connection with their casework may be eligible to receive minor writing credit.

Students should plan to avoid permanent scheduling commitments on Fridays, as to ensure adequate time for fieldwork. Occasional Friday commitments are permissible.

Requirements and Application Process
There are no prerequisites for this course but preference will be given to students who have taken Evidence and Criminal Procedure. Students who wish to take a Trial Practice course are encouraged to take Advanced Trial Practice after this externship or concurrently with it in the spring semester.

To apply, please complete the externship application available through LawNet. The application period can be found on the Experiential Learning home page (

Any additional questions can be sent to Susan Kraham at [email protected].