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March 01, 2015

Finding a Passion for Criminal Law through Legal Clinic Experience

March 2015

In 2013, then fourth-year law student Melissa Álvarez was proud  that she would be among the first generation of lawyers to practice under Mexico’s accusatorial criminal justice system. She knew that she had to be well prepared, so she decided to take advantage of a newly available educational opportunity—her school's clinical legal program. As soon as she learned of the clinic, she was certain that it would help her build new skills while allowing her to help those who could not afford legal representation.

“Providing service and counseling to people, when most of them are part of a vulnerable group of society, was really rewarding.”

Melissa Álvarez
Judicial Analyst, Nuevo León Attorney General's Office
Intern, Inter-American Court of Human Rights

Mexico’s legal education sector—led by schools such as Facultad Libre de Derecho de Monterrey (FLDM)—has been adapting to the country’s criminal justice system reforms through focused curricula and methodological changes. Professors are shifting from theoretical teaching styles to approaches that build practical skills and emphasize oral litigation.

In 2013, the ABA Rule of Law Initiative began to collaborate with three law schools, including FLDM, to establish law school-based oral litigation clinics. The programs both build practical skills and an appreciation for pro bono service. Supervised by professors, the students represent indigent victims and defendants in cases involving domestic violence, assault, theft and other crimes.

Melissa was one of the first four  students who enrolled in FLDM’s legal clinic program in April 2013. For her, the excitement of being a part of something new and the opportunity to work closely with other team members was very enriching, personally and academically.

“Providing service and counseling to people, when most of them are part of a vulnerable group of society, was really rewarding,” Melissa says. “It made me focus my whole personal career in their protection and defense.“

The FLDM clinic has thus far handled 13 cases, providing legal representation in six. Iker Ibarreche, the clinic’s director, says that Melissa showed great commitment from the very beginning.

“She is the ideal student for a legal clinic,” he shares. “She is really responsible and enjoys learning the law and helping others.”

The experience has already helped Melissa in her career. In August 2014, after a year with the clinic, she joined the Nuevo León State Attorney General’s Office as a judicial analyst. Her job requires her to research and analyze legal issues, including the accusatorial system, public security and human rights.

“The clinic helped [Melissa] find a balance between her academic experience and practice, which leaned towards human rights and criminal law,” says Iván de la Garza, her current boss. He says that he hired Melissa after seeing that her broad experience at the clinic had honed her ability to identify and resolve complex judicial problems.

Additionally, Melissa interned with the Inter-American Court of Human Rights in San José, Costa Rica. She is certain that her time with the clinic has been a key element in her journey.

“Without the experience at the clinic, this wouldn’t be possible,” she says. “It made me realize where my interest lies: in protecting vulnerable groups.”

To learn more about our work in Tajikistan, contact the ABA Rule of Law Initiative at [email protected].