In an increasingly specialized legal world, the UC Davis School of Law has a pretty special new course this semester.
On Tuesdays and Thursdays, in a second-floor classroom of the law school's King Hall, a cozy group of six students and a professor meet to brainstorm pleadings they will file with the California Supreme Court.
The only course of its kind in the country, the California Supreme Court clinic is designed to train select students in the art of researching and writing briefs for the state's highest court.
The UCD law school has long been on the cutting edge of clinical programs with its clinics in civil rights, family protection and legal assistance, immigration and prisons. All provide students with experience representing real clients in real cases.
At the helm of the newest clinic is the impressively credentialed and highly motivated Aimee Feinberg, who is the clinic's director and professor.
Some law schools in California and other states have similar programs that focus on the U.S. Supreme Court, but none is devoted to a state high court.
Under Feinberg's direction, the students will provide pro bono representation to individuals and organizations in both criminal and civil matters pending before court. The class will enter a case either as co-counsel to a party or as an amicus curiae, or "friend of the court."
In a recent interview, Feinberg said the students "will study the court as an institution," exploring procedures, examining advocacy to determine which approaches have been historically effective, and meeting with seasoned practitioners before the court. They will not study the seven justices as individual personalities, she said.
"It's really a small, pro bono law firm," Feinberg said of the class. "We will represent those who may not otherwise have access to specialized appellate counsel."
The students are split into three-member teams, each working on its own caseload, she said.
Feinberg said some of their cases will be chosen by monitoring litigation making its way through the six California courts of appeal and weighing the benefits of involvement to both students and parties.
Eventually, she expects the clinic will be approached by counsel who have heard of their quality work.
She said they may join a case in support of the petition asking the high court to accept the matter for review, or they may come in after review has been granted.
"It's a chance to do real attorney work," said Alexander Rich, 29, of Piedmont. "It's writing-intensive, and I wanted a chance to work on my writing. It will also be fun to watch what the Supreme Court is doing."
His classmate, Kelly Volkar, 21, of Martinez, agreed that the course "provides practical experience that other clinics do not."
"I'm really impressed with how realistic the environment is," she said. "We have to fill out time sheets. We have deadlines set by the court that we must meet with high-quality work. That's not true of most college classes. It pushes you to do your best work."
That the class is now off the ground "is terrific," said Charity Kenyon, a 1977 graduate of the law school with a statewide reputation as a top appellate attorney.
"We have an important Supreme Court," she pointed out. "The impact of its decisions reach far beyond the state's boundaries. This is an opportunity most law students never get."
Kenyon, who is active in alumni affairs, said she and others "have encouraged Dean (Kevin) Johnson to think about this. It's the kind of thing a top-tier law school ought to be doing, and it's a chance for the school to make a real difference."
Feinberg, 39, was a litigator at Munger Tolles & Olson in San Francisco and living in Davis when she began talking to Vikram Amar, the law school's associate dean for academic affairs, about taking on the task of putting together a Supreme Court clinic.
A graduate of Stanford Law School, she served as a law clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stephen G. Breyer and to Judge David S. Tatel on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.
Amar urged her to research the possibility and come up with a proposal. She did and in January left her law practice, joined the school's faculty, and over the ensuing seven months used her blueprint to assemble the brick and mortar of the clinic.
"The dean was always interested in trying to figure out how it could be done," Kenyon said. "In Aimee, he obviously found someone who could do it."
The applications were pared to six, and classes began last month. In addition to Rich and Volker, the students are Tara Shabahang, 25, of Los Angeles; Matthew Struhar, 26, of Dover, Ohio; Ben Fox, 30, of Arcata; and Matt Pearson, 25, of Fullerton.
"It's an incredible opportunity to both do and teach what I love," said Feinberg, referring to appellate work.
From Rich's point of view it is "a unique opportunity to put theory into practice with individual attention from a professor who has so recently been in practice."
While researching the viability of the clinic, Feinberg ran across a transcript of a talk on advocacy before the state Supreme Court given by Jeff Bleich several years ago at the UC Berkeley School of Law. Bleich, a longtime friend of President Barack Obama and currently U.S. ambassador to Australia, was formerly a partner at Munger Tolles, where he mentored Feinberg.
In his talk, Bleich suggested two reforms to improve the quality of lawyering before the high court.
First, he said, the state should develop a team of advocates within its solicitor general's office to routinely represent the state before the court.
Second, he said, "California law schools should consider developing a clinic dedicated to helping identify good cases for state Supreme Court review and ensuring those cases are well presented."
Through Feinberg, her students will get the benefit of Bleich's wisdom. Among other things, they will no doubt learn his "secret list of top 10 tricks to outperform your adversary in oral argument before the (court)."
They generally come under the heading of common sense, but the last three are especially pithy: don't make stuff up; don't ignore stuff that matters; and don't, during an oral argument, use the word "stuff."