A group of sixteen aspiring public defenders recently took part in Michigan Law’s third annual Public Defender Training Institute (PDTI) retreat, part of a year-long skills-based course taught by Eve Brensike Primus, ’01, the Yale Kamisar Collegiate Professor of Law. For Michigan Law students who are interested in public defense, PDTI is a vehicle for preparation and encouragement before entering the field.

PDTI, now in its third year, is an intensive immersion into what it takes to be a public defender. The sixteen students in the program—there is always a waitlist—begin the program with the weekend-long retreat and then meet once a week for the rest of the year to refine their skills. According to the Department of Justice, public defenders represent nearly 80 percent of criminal defendants in the United States, yet the practice area remains less popular than others in law school settings. The Law School graduates more than 20 public defenders annually, who go on to represent clients all over the country. 

Primus said the weekend, dubbed Public Defense Fundamentals, is designed to “strip everyone down at the beginning to say ‘why do you want to do this?’” She notes that public defense is “a hard job, and no one is in it for the money, so you must find what motivates you to do this work.” Each student participates in about half a dozen simulations throughout the weekend that teach them the skills necessary to carry them through the rest of the course and their careers as public defenders. An emphasis on storytelling, empathy, how to deal with racism within the system, and one’s personal motivations lay the foundation for the rest of semester’s material. 

Brenna Twohy, ’20, now a public defender in Louisville, Kentucky, said the experience of learning so much in such a short period of time “somewhat mirrored my experience of my first few weeks as a public defender. That combination of excitement, camaraderie, and intensive training is something special.” 

The retreat is also an opportunity for students to learn how to establish a work-life balance that allows one to last in such a grueling field. To accomplish this, Primus invites three to four alumni who are currently public defenders to the retreat so students can learn about different offices, litigation styles, and get a glimpse into their futures. 

Makayla Lopez, a 3L who plans to work as a public defender in Seattle after graduation, said the retreat was a great opportunity to be around people who care about public defense issues and hear the wisdom and advice of alumni in the field. Lopez also noted the value in the program’s focus on storytelling, as “every aspect of the criminal justice system tries to silence your client’s story and to dehumanize them, so you have to fight to make the court listen to their story.” 

Once the students return from the retreat and begin the seminar, they already have the fundamentals necessary to apply client-centered thinking to the legal skills they need to master. Kimberely Hupperich, a 2L, said that the seminar allows them to practice the skills they learn about in a way that is focused on active learning and improving that is not often seen in typical law school courses. The students learn everything from how to do preliminary examinations and file motions, to plea negotiations and bond arguments. 

Professor Primus says there is “no better place to come [than Michigan] if you want to be a public defender,” a sentiment echoed by those who went through the PDTI program. Lopez said she “cannot imagine” a way in which Michigan could be more supportive of students aspiring to be public defenders. Twohy said that she “would not be a public defender now if not for Michigan and Professor Primus in particular. Being surrounded by so many smart, kind, passionate advocates was absolutely the highlight of my law school experience … I have people from PTDI I know I can lean on on hard days. We support each other, commiserate with each other, and cheer each other on. We believe in each other and we believe in the work we are doing. I'll be grateful for that every single day.” 

PDTI is the latest offshoot of MDefenders, a faculty sponsored student organization for aspiring public defenders and criminal justice advocates. The organization serves as a support network for students and alumni alike to help them think about the job of a public defender, where they might want to work, and how to best prepare themselves for the onslaught of cases inherent to the role. For students in the job search phase, MDefenders also provides alumni mentorship in the form of resume reviews, mock interviews, and networking opportunities.