Change of focus: Former courtroom clerk eyes a career as public defender

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By Sheila Pursglove
Legal News   

Brenna Twohy spent 3-1/2 years as a clerk in one of the most high-volume criminal courtrooms in the state of Oregon.

“Every day, I watched as hundreds of individuals were shuffled into a glass box, read the charges against them, and then forced back into the jail. At most, the hearings would last 12 minutes—I know, because I was the one keeping the time,” she says.

“I saw the failures of the system close-up—people pressured into pleading guilty because they couldn’t afford the required bail, people losing their jobs because overloaded dockets lead to hearings being pushed back, and additional days and weeks spent in jail.   

“I enjoyed my time as a courtroom clerk, but I ultimately realized that doing my job well only meant making a broken system work faster,” she adds. “I came to law school because I believe we can do better. There’s nothing I would rather do with my career than fight to ensure my clients are treated as people rather than case numbers. I plan to spend my career as a public defender—there’s no work I would rather do.”

Despite that certainty, Twohy after undergrad spent a year as a legal assistant at Routh Crabtree Olsen in Portland, exploring the area of civil law before committing herself to a criminal law path.   

“I got to work with a lot of great attorneys and learned a lot about the process, but the experience ultimately confirmed my suspicion that criminal law was a better fit with my strengths and interests,” she says.

Now in her 2L year at the University of Michigan Law School, Twohy notes that MLaw has a unique student atmosphere.

“It’s one of the most supportive communities I’ve ever had the privilege of being part of,” she says. “Students help each other academically and interpersonally – I’ve gotten messages offering rides to the grocery store, home-cooked meals, UCC flowcharts, biscuit recipes, and jokes.   

“Despite the law school curve—and the fact that ultimately we’re competing against each other for grades—it never feels like a cut-throat environment. We build each other up, and we’re stronger for it.”

She spent last summer as a student attorney at the Legal Aid Society of NYC’s Criminal Defense Practice in the Bronx. Representing clients at arraignments, making release arguments, and serving as second-chair at a misdemeanor trial that resulted in an acquittal, she learned about discovery, suppression, speedy trial calculations, and how to select a jury.   

“The most transformative work I did, though, was not inside the courtroom,” she says. “The time I spent talking to clients and their families reminded me that the law itself is my tool, not my purpose. Because The Legal Aid Society has a holistic representation model, attorneys work closely with social workers to address underlying issues affecting the client, such as mental health and addiction.   

“Learning my client’s stories – their strengths and their struggles – and being able to advocate meaningfully on their behalf was an immense privilege.”

Recipient of an MLaw Dean’s Public Service Fellowship, Twohy will start in May as a summer law clerk at the Public Defender Service for the District of Columbia.   

“I’ll represent clients facing parole revocation, which will be a new piece of the criminal justice system for me,” she says. “I look forward to the opportunity to learn from PDS attorneys and from my clients.”   

Involved in mock trial throughout high school and undergrad, she continued that passion at MLaw.

“Mock Trial has always been a highlight of my education. I enjoyed the challenge of looking at a fact pattern at all angles and coming up with creative strategies,” she says. “I captained a team in college, where I was surrounded by passionate, smart, funny people.   

“Law school is no different – I’m constantly challenged and inspired by my teammates, and enjoy the opportunity to compete on behalf of Michigan Law at tournaments across the country.”

She also is involved in the Student Rights Project, where graduate students from the law school, the School of Education, and the School of Social Work help K-12 students facing suspension or expulsion.

“We meet with the students and their families in an attempt to craft targeted, comprehensive solutions to the issues they face at school,” she says. “We also serve as advocates in formal disciplinary hearings.

“Working with graduate students in education and social work has broadened my perspective on what it means to be an effective advocate, and highlighted the strengths of a holistic model of representation. Rather than focusing solely on winning a hearing, we focus on meeting the student’s needs long-term and ensuring the best possible outcome for them in the future.”

Twohy earned her undergrad degree, magna cum laude, from the University of Portland, majoring in political science and government, and spent five months interning for Democratic Senator Jeff Merkley.

“It was a great experience,” she says. “I was able to work closely with the Deputy State Director on various projects that gave me insight into the political process and issues that are important to Oregonians.”

A Los Angeles native, Twohy moved to Portland at 18 and lived there until law school.

“I have a deep love for Oregon and consider it my home,” she says.

The author of two books of poetry, “Forgive Me My Salt,” and “Zig-Zag Girl,” for 6 years she participated in the Portland Poetry Slam that hosted open mics and poetry events for locals in addition to bringing touring artists in from across the country.

“Through that experience, I learned how powerful storytelling can be – spoken words builds bridges that allows others to empathize with a lived experience that is very different from their own,” she says. “I think there are more commonalities between good storytelling/poetry and good lawyering than one might think.”

She also enjoys doing close-up card magic, which she learned from her grandfather.

“I always have a deck of cards in my purse, and am constantly trying out new moves or routines,” she says.

 

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