Externship Profile: Berkeley County Public Defender’s Office

When rising 2L Kyle Smithwick began working for the Berkeley County Public Defender’s Office this summer as part of the Indigent Defense Externship Program, he hit the ground running. “On my first day, my first assignment was to start working on a murder case,” Smithwick said.

The Indigent Defense Externship Program, known as the IDEP, is a cooperative effort between the Charleston School of Law and the South Carolina Commission on Indigent Defense that places law students in rural public defender offices. Since the IDEP began in 2006, it has placed 51 law students in summer externships in 12 different rural public defender offices throughout South Carolina. Some of the offices participate in multiple years.

Although a number of law schools offer externship programs where students are unpaid but gain practical work experience for course credit, the IDEP fills a critical, often unmet need by serving rural public defender offices.

Smithwick describes his six-week externship, which he recently completed, as “Criminal Law 101.”  The Berkeley County Public Defender’s Office has five busy attorneys with large caseloads. Smithwick provided much need assistance by interviewing clients, performing legal research, and helping at hearings and trials.

“The attorneys I worked for represented their clients to their fullest, even when it was a tough situation,” Smithwick said. “I learned what a hard working attorney looks like.”

In addition to learning from the attorneys in his office, Smithwick also learned from the clients. “Hearing the clients’ stories opened my eyes,” Smithwick explained. “Often one small thing in their lives led to a tough situation. They needed someone to put them in the right direction.” Smithwick noted how the office helps clients beyond providing legal services by directing them to social service programs.

Smithwick is a native of Belhaven, N.C. and graduated from East Carolina University before attending the Charleston School of Law.

The 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. Since the fall of 2006, Charleston School of Law students have completed over 105,452 externship hours. For more information please contact Professor James Klein or Autumn Jones.

Story and photo by:  Michelle Condon