Professor guides students in writing and research

prev
next

By Sheila Pursglove
Legal News

While teaching in the classroom, Cooley Law professor Erika Breitfeld enjoys stepping out of the professor role and playing a difficult or inconsistent witness or a no-nonsense judge asking questions about a motion or brief.

“The interactive learning process is crucial to learning courtroom and appellate skills, and even sound legal writing,” she explains. “You can read a book all day about how to cross examine a witness, write a motion, or answer a question-prodding judge, but when you have to actually get up and do it, you will always fall back on what you have done before. My goal is to make sure my students are forming the right habits so that when they do get nervous, they fall back on an accurate and effective skill set.”

Her goal is the same for her research and writing classes, leading students to master the writing fundamentals: topic sentences, thesis paragraphs, supported analysis, plain English, and proper punctuation and citation.
“When it comes time to produce, I want Cooley students impressing their employers and the bench,” she says.

Breitfeld, a former assistant prosecuting attorney in Macomb County, joined the Cooley faculty full time in January 2013, after serving as an adjunct professor in 2009 and a visiting professor during 2011. 

In keeping with her roots as a prosecutor, she is involved with the Genesee County Prosecutor’s externship program on Cooley’s Auburn Hills campus, teaching the classroom component where students practice trial skills, and moot court, where she teaches students appellate advocacy through persuasive writing and oral advocacy skills.

But mostly, she teaches research and writing to first-year students; topics include legal analysis, legal research, critical thinking and reasoning, and plain language. She also teaches Advanced Writing to second and third year students, focusing on appellate writing and contract drafting. Lastly, she is the faculty adviser to the Journal of Practical and Clinical Law.

“I enjoy teaching because I like watching students realize their potential,” she says. “Too often students assume they can’t do something – a good teacher makes them realize they can and shows them how to get there. I think of myself as a coach in the classroom with just the right amount of knowledge, toughness, and motivation. And from the student feedback I receive, the students appreciate that I care about their success and
always remind them of their capacity to succeed.”

According to Breitfeld, when it comes to research and writing, students struggle with mentally letting go of everything they think they know about writing.

“I tell them to ‘get out of their own way,’” she says. “Legal writing is different than creative writing or technical writing – it’s based on precedent and analysis, support for your argument, and is often written for a reader who has a critical eye and is short on time. I remind them that the reader is the most important person in the writer-reader relationship. Also, I think students struggle with the journey. They want instant results. But writing is like any sport or craft: the more you practice, the better you get. So I open my class with a quote: ‘Every expert was once a beginner,’ and we go from there.”

Breitfeld herself has been passionate about writing from childhood and has kept a journal from the age of 10. But law wasn’t her first career goal. Her undergrad degree from Michigan State University is in Hospitality Administration and Management.

“I’ve always enjoyed understanding how a company makes a profit, and I am known to enjoy a beautiful hotel or seamlessly run restaurant. I thought hospitality management was a perfect fit,” she says. “I never considered law until I told my parents I wasn’t fulfilled with hospitality business as my career, and they suggested I go to law school.”

Returning to Spartan territory, she earned her J.D., cum laude, from MSU College of Law.While there, she received the Walter Oberer Scholarship for trial-advocacy excellence, and the Eve August Moot Court scholarship for oral advocacy. She was a member of the Fieger Trial Practice program, served as chief editor of Casenotes, Journal of Law and Medicine, and clerked at Church, Kritselis & Wyble in Lansing.

Her first job after graduation was as an associate attorney at Ward, Anderson, Porritt & Bryant in Bloomfield Hills, where she defended insurance companies in no-fault insurance and negligence matters. If not her passion, it paid the bills.

“I was a new lawyer, and I just needed to get the ball rolling, so to speak,” she says.” I had experience with plaintiff’s work in law school, so I decided to take the insurance defense job because I already had a strong foundation of understanding negligence and the no-fault insurance scheme.”

Moving up the legal ladder quickly, at the age of 25 she became an Assistant Prosecuting Attorney in Macomb County, starting out in the district, circuit, and family court divisions. In addition to trying misdemeanor and felony cases, she also served as the 37th District drug court assistant prosecutor providing alternative sentencing and substance-abuse treatment for non-violent criminals; and in 2011, was promoted to the Child Sex Crimes Unit, where she prosecuted child rapists and child molesters.

“I grew up quickly and learned a lot about the world,” she says. “Unfortunately, I saw how poorly people can treat each other, and there are cases and victims that will be in my heart and mind forever. Dealing with broken families made me realize how lucky I was to have had a stable, loving upbringing.”

She marks her time in the Child Sex Crimes Unit as the most challenging.

“The cases were disturbing, and it seemed like no matter what the outcome, there was never any closure for the victims and the families,” she says. “The cases were emotionally charged and legally complex, and I have haunting memories of a few children’s ordeals that I wish I didn’t have. But as a professional, I had to put my emotions aside and focus on the task at hand – justice for the child.”

On the upside, she enjoyed the interaction with the defense bar, judges, court staff, and police.

“We don’t have a perfect system, but a lot of people dedicate their career to helping victims of crime,” she says. “I find that honorable, and I’m very proud of my service.”

Moreover, Breitfeld cites her experience with the 37th District drug court as “exceptional.” She learned about addiction and the battles many people face to reach sobriety; watched college-bound young adults lose everything because of alcohol and prescription-drug abuse; and saw parents lose children and spouses because of one too many relapses.

“But most importantly, I learned addiction is a disease that is misdiagnosed as ‘lack of control,’” she says. “Our jails are filled with non-violent offenders – and I stress the word non-violent, because I think this really matters – who are sick with the disease of addiction, and when they finish their sentence, they return to the same habits, and the cycle continues. A jail sentence is not treatment for this disease and does not address the problem.”

Drug courts are a hot topic in the legal world, and Breitfeld continues to stay involved by serving as a board member for the nonprofit Carol Ann Substance Abuse Recovery Corporation (CASAR), which provides funding to the 37th District drug court.

She gives back to the community in many other ways, and is particularly passionate about education outreach, poverty alleviation, and animal welfare. 

“I’m a firm believer in honoring what you have by helping someone else,” she says. “Money is wonderful, and it provides a lot of opportunities – but time is priceless. Give someone your time, and you validate that they are worth something. Everyone just wants to know that they are cared for.”

A volunteer for Forgotten Harvest, she and other family members recently chopped nearly one ton of zucchini that was going to feed 2,000 people the next day throughout the tri-county area.
“Although I didn’t get to see the faces of the people I helped, I take a bit of comfort knowing that they experienced one of the most fundamental needs – food at the hands of strangers,” she says.

A mentor with the Macomb County Bar Foundation Reading Program, she also is the lead volunteer for the Lincoln High School book club sponsored through the Kimberly Cahill Memorial Reading Program.

“I love working with young minds, especially middle and high school students,” she says.

She also enjoys encouraging young adults to pursue a legal career.

“If they seem anxious at the thought of seven years of college, I remind them that anything worth having is worth working for,” she says.

In her leisure hours, she is an avid fan and season ticket holder of the Detroit Tigers. She also enjoys scrapbooking, cooking, shopping, spending time with her parents and siblings, and exercise, particularly kickboxing and Zumba. 

She shares her Macomb Township home with a yellow Labrador retriever that failed out of Leader Dogs for the Blind school.

“She just wanted to play and never work,” Breitfeld says with a smile. “I often joke that I hang out with a flunky in my spare time.”