The Public Defender Service for the District of Columbia (PDS) is a federally funded, independent organization governed by an 11-member board of trustees.  Founded as the Legal Aid Agency in 1960, PDS was established as the successor to the Legal Aid Agency in 1970 by a federal statute enacted to comply with the constitutional mandate to provide defense counsel for people who cannot afford an attorney.  For more than 60 years, PDS has led the nation in providing exceptional advocacy and legal representation for indigent adults and children.  Judges and prosecutors, as well as public defender agencies and state bar associations across the country, acknowledge and respect the outstanding work of PDS’s attorneys.

PDS was one of the first indigent defense programs in the nation to protect clients facing criminal prosecution from the collateral civil consequences of their involvement in the criminal justice system by providing them counsel in related civil proceedings.

The Work of PDS’s Civil Division

PDS’s Civil Division handles a wide array of civil matters arising from our criminal defense practice.  This civil work can include housing related litigation, civil forfeiture defense, tort defense, child custody, employment, bankruptcy, civil protection order cases, civil restitution, civil contempt proceedings, child abuse and neglect proceedings, and special education advocacy. While these are the most common types of cases we handle, our practice is eclectic due to the complexity of our clients’ lives and has, for instance, included work in interpleader litigation over the right to receive life insurance benefits, guardianship issues, specific performance suits, wage theft litigation, and probate issues.

Beyond being interdisciplinary, our general civil practice is also made complex because many cases generate questions that affect a client’s criminal procedure protections.  Fifth Amendment concerns are implicated in any case where the client has a parallel criminal case or potential criminal exposure.  As an initial matter, this means in many cases our clients are not available to testify.  More broadly, what is done in the civil case, for example in discovery, implicates the Sixth Amendment’s Assistance of Counsel and Right to Present a Defense Clauses, each of which strongly protect against requiring the defense to disclose its evidence, strategies or theories to the government.  Because these constitutional safeguards can be adversely impacted by how the civil case is handled, these concerns necessarily drive many tactical and strategic decisions in our civil cases.  This dynamic adds a layer of complexity to discovery not present in most conventional civil poverty practices.  Thus, civil discovery and work-product issues abound in many of our cases. All this to say that our cases are intellectually challenging and require the highest level of skills to navigate these issues and achieve good outcomes for our clients.

Our general civil practice includes every phase of litigation, including discovery, use of experts, pretrial motion practice and jury trial work.  Team defense is practiced at PDS, which in the Civil Division means in most cases there will be two lawyers co-counseling along with involvement by PDS’s other divisions.  We have an Investigation Division that allows us to carefully develop the case outside of the formal discovery process.  We have a forensic social work division, the Office of Rehabilitation and Development that provides services in appropriate cases, including preparation of forensic reports and testimony in certain types of litigation.  Depending on the nature of the criminal matter and its posture, there is frequently close coordination with the criminal defense attorney.  Our resources allow us to retain whatever experts are necessary to properly develop the case and present the case at trial.  For example, we have utilized the services of medical experts, drug addiction experts, housing experts, psychologists, forensic experts (in the area of cell phone and tower data analysis), DNA experts, fingerprint experts, child abuse/pediatric medical experts, and even a cultural anthropologist in a child abuse and neglect case.  Our Civil Division attorneys have ready access to our Trial Division’s Forensic Practice Group to assist with certain types of scientific evidence.

In addition to litigating cases, our Civil Division attorneys frequently have to give counsel and advice to clients and our criminal defense lawyers on discrete civil legal issues outside the formal context of pending civil litigation.  It could be about an intended course of action in the criminal case and how that might impact the client in connection with receipt of a government benefit.  Or, perhaps, it could be a federal income tax issue or a matter concerning the disposition of personal property, their right to claim property, how the entry of a certain plea could impact parental rights or helping a client navigate a non-litigative resolution of a matter that impacts their welfare.  We also may be asked to review contracts or other documents as well as draft particular transactional or other legal documents.

Clinical students work on a broad array of general civil litigation cases.  Student interns receive mentoring and close supervision on any case project he/she will be working on.  Supervision and feedback is ongoing throughout the semester.  In addition to feedback on draft written work-product submitted by clinical students, there are regular attorney-student meetings to discuss project issues and to provide the student feedback.  Clinical students participate in case meetings that may involve conferrals with social workers, investigators, criminal defense counsel, experts and meetings with opposing counsel.  During the course of the semester, clinical interns will have the opportunity to observe hearings and trials. (either in person or virtually if working remote)

One of the hallmarks of PDS’s approach to advocacy is its collaborative nature, which is centered on advancing the client’s interests as defined by the client.  Our collaborative approach translates into supportive and close work with colleagues on every aspect of a case.  Below are the types of legal projects students can expect to do during their clinical experience with PDS’s Civil Division as well as an indication of the breadth of the exposure they will have to every facet of practicing law at the intersection of criminal defense and civil poverty law.

  • Legal research for use in specific cases and on broader systemic issues that affect PDS clients.
  • Pleadings—Assist in drafting and preparation of pleadings. 
  • Motion practice—Assist in drafting, researching, and preparation of motions and accompanying memorandums.
  • Legal correspondence—Assist in drafting various types of correspondence to the court, opposing counsel, clients, and governmental agency officials.
  • FOIA requests and FOIA administrative appeals.  
  • Discovery—Assist in drafting discovery that will be served on opposing parties and responses to discovery propounded on PDS clients.
  • Draft various types of declarations for use in cases.
  • Draft powers of attorney to fit client needs.
  • Draft client retainers.
  • Communicate with clients and conduct interviews.
  • Participate in Team Defense meetings.
  • Participate in expert witness conferrals and case conferences.
  • Attend case hearings virtually.
  • Virtually observe trials and appellate arguments across divisions agency-wide.
  • Receive ongoing feedback and conferral throughout the semester.

PDS is a wonderful place to practice law for all the right reasons.  It is staffed by incredibly talented lawyers, all of whom are committed to the noblest of ideals, defending indigent persons facing the loss of their liberty and the loss of the things we value most as a society.  This means that in addition to the professional development clinical students get while at PDS, they also have the high privilege every day of their internship to make a difference in another human being’s life.

Students considering applying, if interested, can speak directly with prior Civil Division clinical interns from Harvard and other law schools.  Email Robert Hornstein at

Application to PDS:   

Interested students are requested to submit a resume and cover letter to by Monday, September 25, 2023.

Independent Clinical (IC):

This is a winter-spring opportunity. Students will spend J-tern in DC, working on-site, continuing to work remotely, part-time, during spring term.   Students will earn two clinical credits for winter term and may earn between 2-3 clinical credits during spring.  Two clinical credits is equivalent to 8 hours of work per week and three clinical credits is equivalent to 12 hours of work per week.  Funding assistance is available for housing accommodations and travel to DC.   Please consult the funding guidelines and funding deadlines here:

Once selected by PDS, in order to earn academic credit, students must submit an independent clinical application.  The winter term IC application deadline is Friday October 27, 2023.

Consult this link for more information:   Questions about the independent clinical application process may be directed to