The Way We Were: Spotlight on Laura Berend

In honor of our 40th anniversary celebration, USD Legal Clinics is pleased to present “The Way We Were,” a blog segment featuring the profile and perspective of the pioneers that conceptualized, implemented and carried forward the early years of the Legal Clinics.  This week’s segment highlights Professor Laura Berend.

Professor Laura Berend

Professor Laura Berend’s first experience with USD’s Legal Clinics was as a USD law student from 1972-1975. Berend participated in the Legal Clinics during her last semester, completing a rotation in the Civil Clinic. She also volunteered at Defenders, Inc. and after she passed the bar, she was offered a position as a staff lawyer there – the fourth woman ever hired. “My boss would only hire one woman at a time,” comments Berend. “Of the first three women ahead of me, two were also USD graduates.”

Defenders, Inc. was a predecessor to the Office of the Public Defender and had offices throughout San Diego County, receiving 25% of the court appointed work. “I was quite literally learning on the job with zero experience in criminal law and absolute and total passion,” states Berend. “All of us were working together with very little prior hands-on training, but we were inspired and fueled by the goal of rooting out injustice everywhere.”

Berend stayed at Defenders, Inc. until 1980, after which she went into private practice for two years. But when Alex Landon took the Executive Director position in 1982 she returned to Defenders, Inc. “He did an incredible job of turning that organization around after several difficult years and was an amazing boss,” reflects Berend. Her new role at Defenders, Inc. included running the South Bay office which was a training office for new attorneys.

“I found out I liked training new lawyers,” she comments. “So when Terry Player, then-Director of the Legal Clinics, asked me to teach as adjunct faculty in 1982, I said yes. I began teaching one of the small sections on Trial Techniques.” After that Berend took a three year leave of absence from Defenders, Inc. to teach and never went back. She’s been faculty for USD’s Legal Clinics ever since.

“I just really liked the students. It was what I enjoyed about being in a training office at Defenders,” recollects Berend. “And I liked being able to have a little to do with turning out honorable, compassionate and competent criminal attorneys. Also, having such small classes in the clinic let me work with students as individuals, which I really enjoyed.”

By the time Berend came on board as full-time faculty in 1983, the Criminal Clinic was a fully functional in-house clinic, which was much different than how Berend had experienced the clinics just eight years earlier. “In the 70’s, the clinics were still very new,” describes Berend. “Vietnam was very fresh and the feeling around the clinics was a bit different during the time when I was a student. When I came back as faculty it was better organized, there were more people and there was a fully functioning combination of clinics.”

When Berend returned to USD as faculty, the Criminal Clinic was attached to a class and students had the possibility of receiving placement in the community or in-house representing clients. When Berend first took a faculty position, Mike Evans and Rick Barron were supervising the Criminal Clinic. When Evans, left she replaced him and eventually Barron left as well. Various faculty switched out the two year placement with her over the years, and Berend has maintained the position as the consistent faculty member, rotating with Jean Ramirez over the last two decades.

“One of the components of the Criminal Clinic that really had a big impact on students was the in-house juvenile clinic we had going for about ten years,” recollects Berend. Students could still be placed within the community at criminal trial agencies like the District Attorney’s, Public Defenders’, City Attorney’s, U.S. Attorney’s, Federal Defenders’ and Attorney General’s offices, but those placed in the in-house juvenile clinic handled their own cases. “Those students showed a tremendous amount of growth,” states Berend. “They were really in charge of their cases from start to finish. They decided how to defend the delinquents, had their own clients, made their own appearances and filed the court documents themselves. In community placements, students didn’t get nearly as much hands-on experience simply because they were not in charge of their cases.”

Berend joins Professor Walter Heiser and Professor Terry Player in recollecting the sense of camaraderie and collaboration among the Legal Clinics faculty during that time. “The best part of the early years of the clinics was the sense of team effort in putting together a cohesive program,” Berend adds. “And we were really at the cutting edge of clinics across the country. Our curriculum building process made us stand out, particularly at clinical conferences. We were at the forefront of skills training.”

And within the field of criminal law, the need for skills training and experience before attorneys begin practicing is of paramount importance. “In criminal law, you hit the ground running,” comments Berend. “You’ve got someone in jail? Hello? Think fast. What are you going to do? The consequences are huge with three strikes and the penalties are much higher as an attorney if you lose your case.”

For Berend, the clinical experience helps mitigate the occurrence of these types of consequences by creating thoughtful attorneys, who have experienced the intricacies of the process before being responsible for these cases as practicing lawyers: “In my world, a legal clinical education serves two functions: it gives exposure to the process itself and to the human beings involved within that system. Not only do they get to know the players in the process but they get to figure out how they, as students and future attorneys, participate within that process.”

Berend continues to teach in the areas of criminal trial practice, evidence advocacy and ethics and is chair of the Community Defenders, Inc. grant committee. She is a past president of the board of directors of the Defenders Organization of San Diego, president of the San Diego Psych-Law Society, past president of the Criminal Defense Lawyers Club and a former board member of the San Diego Criminal Defense Bar Association.

Among her publications are “Proposition 115 Preliminary Hearings: Sacrificing Reliability on the Altar of Expediency,” Pacific Law Journal and “Criminal Litigation In Action,” (with Professor Ramirez) National Institute for Trial Advocacy. The third edition of her evidence advocacy problems and teaching notes is published in the Teacher’s Manual for Evidence: Teaching Materials for an Age of Science and Statutes (Lexis Law Publishing).

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