Externship Profile: Charleston County Public Defender’s Office

Scott Riddell, rising 2L, wanted to gain knowledge from both sides of the spectrum—how the law handles defendants who are unable to afford legal assistance and how these individuals respond to the law in return. After attending two discussion panels on campus, he pursued an externship with the Charleston County Public Defender’s Office.

Riddell quickly learned what it means to be a public defender – time management, caring about the client’s best interest and working well with others. “Because I’m so new to field of law, I find a lot of experiences interesting here,” said Riddell.

Riddell enjoys the variety of work and the doors it has opened to participate in many facets of state and criminal practices and procedures. There is no typical day, except arriving at 8:30 a.m. ready to work. He may observe courtroom trials, research elements of a client’s charges, accompany an investigator at a crime scene or write memos. “I like this externship because you’re not just at a desk; there are a lot of different things you can do,” said Riddell.

Maintaining awareness of how he communicates with clients is valuable on both sides when interacting between clients and attorneys. “One of the biggest impressions I’ve had is of this great gap of misunderstanding between the legal professionals and the clients. I’m talking to someone who may have stopped school in ninth grade and grown up poor. His world has nothing to do with these administrative bodies and I have to remember that.” said Riddell.  “Often, the clients don’t know how the system works—when they should be patient during their case, and when they need an explanation both of their rights and when the proper times are to exercise them.”

While externing, Riddell has learned how the client’s fate is shaped by every interaction a public defender has with multiple parties. “The fate of a client who may have shot a guy at his house is now shaped by the relationship he had with his neighbor who may not tell us anything advantageous or may incriminate him. There are many layers, like the solicitor, the judge, the social worker and the arresting officer. The client’s case is affected by how skillfully you can negotiate with each of them,” said Riddell.

Riddell praises the Turning Leaf Project (TLP), an offender-focused education initiative dedicated to building a healthier and safer community by empowering incarcerated individuals to make positive choices upon release. Riddell attended the graduation ceremony and said, “It’s exciting to see inmates so dedicated to their better selves. One man on probation even voluntarily entered jail just so he could attend the program.”

This externship is usually reserved for rising 3L students because they have taken courses in Criminal Procedure and Criminal Law, but Riddell notes the Legal Research and Writing class has helped him as there is a steep learning curve for legal writing.

Riddell looks forward to the upcoming semester so he can bring his personal memories and first-hand experiences and apply them to class material. “I like knowing I’ll be able to go into class and remember faces of clients—and I think they will motivate me to learn more because I’ve had such positive experiences. To be able to think of the guys at the TLP giving their speeches and to watch them grow… what better way to study these abstract ideas?”

Originally from Texas, Riddell received a degree in philosophy from UNC-Chapel Hill, and was an enlisted Machinist’s Mate before becoming a Junior Officer in the Naval Submarine Service before attending law school. At the Charleston School of Law, he was the secretary of the Charleston County Bar Association Student Division, is a member of Toastmasters International, and is a MUSC Presidential Scholar.

Charleston School of Law’s externship program allows students to gain practical work experience while earning course credit. Students complement their classroom studies by working under the direct supervision of members of the judiciary or attorneys in the public sector. This summer, Charleston School of Law students are at 22 exciting externships sites helping the community. Since fall 2006, Charleston School of Law students have completed approximately 97,420 externship hours. The externship course is offered during the fall, spring and summer terms. Should you be interested in earning academic credit through the Externship Program, please review the School of Law Guide to Securing an Externship. For more information please contact Professor James Klein or Autumn Jones.

By: Kat Drerup