OXFORD, Miss. – When most law students graduate, they look forward to standing before a judge on their first “day in court.” But for Dakota Moore, who graduates Saturday from the University of Mississippi School of Law, that day has already come, and even better, he won the case.
Moore, a third-year student from Jackson, successfully prosecuted a felony arson and insurance fraud case in circuit court this spring, quite an accomplishment for a law student. The experience has him aiming for a career as a prosecutor.
“When I reflect on the experience, my first thought is always how privileged I am to have had this opportunity,” Moore said. “I know many practicing attorneys with years of experience who have never spoken in open court, much less tried a case.”
Moore is among 3,363 candidates for degrees who are set to graduate Saturday (May 12). This spring’s graduating class includes 141 candidates for the juris doctor degree.
He developed an interest in prosecution work from various clerkships he’d held during his time at Ole Miss. Moore did so well that he got a chance to extern with the District Attorney’s Office for the third district, working with Kelly Luther, assistant district attorney, and Ben Creekmore, district attorney.
Less than a week into the externship, Moore was addressing a judge in a bail revocation hearing.
“My nerves were nearly uncontrollable, but the guidance I received from the accompanying assistant district attorney gave me the confidence to speak with authority while addressing the judge,” he said.
After the hearing, Creekmore called Moore and appointed him as lead prosecutor in the fraud case in Tippah County. Moore prepared, tried and won what became a weeklong trial, with Creekmore helping present the state’s case.
“The fact that he had enough confidence in me to let me take on this case is amazing,” Moore said. “He put his job on the line to give me this opportunity, and it’s the best learning experience I’ve had.”
Although the challenge seemed daunting at first, Moore recognized that the knowledge and skills he’d acquired in law school had equipped him for actual trial work.
“You always hear that law school doesn’t prepare you for the real world, but it absolutely does,” he said. “I realized I had no idea how much work went into preparing for a trial, but I also realized I knew exactly what to do.”
Moore says the hardest part of the experience came, surprisingly, after he won the case.
“When they read the verdict, it became real,” he said. “This was not my opportunity to play lawyer for a week, and it was not moot court. It hit me these are real people with real lives.”
Moore’s externship was part of the law school’s Prosecution Externship Program, directed by clinical professor Hans Sinha. The program combines both classroom and real-world experience to provide law students the skills they need in careers as prosecutors.
“The goal is for every student in the program to handle something in the courtroom,” Sinha said. “Dakota was particularly successful because he worked hard, had the competence and the confidence to get the job done. He also took on a white collar case, which is more difficult to do.”
Students are placed in externships in local, state and federal prosecuting offices, and with state and national prosecution-related agencies. Moore was among four law students assigned to work in the District Attorney’s Office.
“The externship allows students to apply the information they have learned in their classes,” said Richard Gershon, UM law dean. “That is valuable in and of itself, but the externships also allow students to interact with lawyers and judges. That is a great networking opportunity.”
The classroom component of the program is what sets the Ole Miss program apart from other law schools. It teaches substantive and procedural legal principles as well as practical exercises. Professionalism and ethical concerns also are emphasized.
“The classroom piece is what makes us unique,” Sinha said. “We focus on professionalism and ethics so when students enter the workforce they not only understand the day-to-day work of prosecutors, they also are prepared to be ‘ministers of justice.’”
Besides the Prosecution Externship Program, students gain experience through a number of law school centers and clinics, which provide practical experience and academic training in areas ranging from business law to provision of services to the poor.
Through it all, though, Moore said Sinha’s externship, along with what he learned in the classroom, prepared him for success.
“From arguing motions, to representing the state in hearings, to presenting arguments in an actual trial, the externship experience provides an abundance of real-world opportunities to conduct oneself as a practicing attorney,” Moore said. “It has been the most gratifying and enlightening experience of my law school career.”
For more information on programs in the School of Law, go to http://law.olemiss.edu/.