MARTINEZ -- Saron Tesfai figured out early on in law school that he has a passion for criminal procedure, but he thought it would be years before he'd be in a courtroom prosecuting defendants before a judge.
Then came a unique fellowship program born out of Hastings College of Law in San Francisco that's putting attorneys-in-training to work for local governments and nonprofits. Though he's still a semester away from graduation, Tesfai has already served as a prosecutor at two dozen preliminary hearings for felony crimes such as drug possession, grand theft auto and robbery for the Contra Costa District Attorney's Office.
"Other third-year students are lucky if they get to do one or two. By the time I'm done with this fellowship, I will have a good amount of experience to distinguish myself from my peers," said the 32-year-old San Pablo resident. " I feel like this is the best learning experience I've had since I've been in law school."
Tesfai is among the pilot class of fellows for Lawyers for America, a program conceived by Hastings professors to give law students hands-on training in the public sector, and give cash-strapped governments and nonprofits the opportunity to enhance their ranks. The Contra Costa District Attorney's and Public Defender's offices are the first to take advantage of the program, which commits the students to their ranks for two years -- one year before and one year after graduation.
"We have integrated them into the practice of law as much as we can," said Contra Costa County Assistant District Attorney Tom Kensok. His fellows write legal motions, do subpoena rosters and, under the supervision of a licensed attorney, argue in court.
"They are here full time doing as much as they can and getting a very in-depth introduction into the practice of criminal law," Kensok said.
Marsha Cohen, a founding executive director for Lawyers for America and a Hastings professor, said the program is the first of its kind in the nation in giving students a year of hands-on training for school credit, and then a guaranteed job after graduation -- a time when most grads are doing volunteer work to beef up their resume while they frantically look for work.
While there are always clinical education opportunities for law students, they traditionally last a single semester. In the Lawyers for America program, fellows receive the time and training to develop skills, contacts and a reputation in their chosen field, Cohen said.
Meanwhile, the participating governments and nonprofits get -- at a reduced cost -- a first-year attorney whom they've trained themselves.
With the first year of the program a success, new Lawyers for America fellows will soon be placed at the Berkeley City Attorney's Office, the Center for Biological Diversity's San Francisco Office, Legal Services for Prisoners with Children in San Francisco, the First District Appellate Project and the Contra Costa County Superior Court. Across the country, Brooklyn Law School is looking to join the program or replicate it.
Over at the Contra Costa Public Defender's Office, fellow Aaron Jaques said he feels lucky for the opportunity.
"It's pretty difficult to obtain a paid position at a Bay Area public defender's office straight out of law school," said Jaques, 27, of Oakland. "It's giving me a foot in the door at an office I would like to work with permanently.
"They get to see me in court and see what I can do; even the grad clerks don't get that chance," Jaques said.
Contact Malaika Fraley at 925-234-1684. Follow her at Twitter.com/malaikafraley.