Policy matters: Law grad works on Colorado gubernatorial campaign effort

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By Sheila Pursglove
Legal News

A May graduate of the University of Michigan Law School, Erin Chapman is now working as a policy fellow for Mike Johnston, a former state legislator in the Colorado Senate who is running for governor of the Centennial State in next year’s election.

“I’ve admired Mike’s reflective, compassionate approach to public service since I worked with him when he was a state senator—so after the 2016 election, I knew I wanted to come back to Colorado to work on his campaign,” says Chapman, who is using her legal research skills to help flesh out Johnston’s platform and key policy proposals.

“There’s really a sense in the office that the responsibility is on us to demonstrate that a progressive vision—rooted in inclusion and fueled by big ideas—can win the day in a purple state.”

It’s not Chapman’s first time at the political dance. She volunteered on Hillary Clinton’s campaign last fall, registering voters and knocking on doors urging people to vote.

“On November 8, my canvassing partner and I skipped classes and each logged over 35,000 steps reminding people to vote,” she says. “Carving out time to work on that campaign is one of the things I’m most proud of from my time in Ann Arbor. We felt we were on the frontlines fighting for our vision for the future of America.”

Chapman envisions a future career that involves writing, teaching, and public service.

“The questions I keep coming back to are about democracy and inequality,” she says. “Whether it’s bringing enforcement actions against for-profit colleges or working on campaigns to make school funding more fair, I’m interested in using government to help disempowered groups to better advocate for themselves.”

Chapman originally had three career goals: writing, teaching, or law. During undergrad at Indiana University, she wrote for the college newspaper, and after college, joined Teach for America.

“When the first two didn’t exactly fit, I decided to go to law school, to advocate for historically marginalized communities,” she says. 

Before law school, she worked alongside people disempowered in various ways—“From farmers in rural Peru who lost loved ones in a bloody civil war, to prisoners in the Midwest who wanted to improve themselves but had no access to reading material, and parents living in poverty in Colorado Springs who wanted a better life for their children,” she says.

“As an undergraduate I studied leaders who attempted to give voice to groups of people who had historically been overlooked including conservative housewives in Indiana and victims of the troubles in Northern Ireland. As a lawyer, I thought I could do what I had been doing in all of those roles—helping the disempowered to voice their concerns and ideas in a way that would make people in power respond.”

One of three U-M Law School graduates honored with the Irving Stenn Jr. Award at graduation for leadership and extracurricular activities, Chapman enjoyed her time in Ann Arbor.

“The best thing about Michigan Law is the community,” she says. “Going to law school in Ann Arbor as opposed to in a big city means your classmates don’t dissipate to different corners of the city when classes end. You end up spending so much time together. Fortunately, my classmates were some of the smartest, most interesting people.

“That was especially true given that I lived in the Lawyers’ Club for three years. Some of my favorite memories are laughing with classmates over dinner in the LC.”

Heading up the Law Review was the greatest honor and toughest challenge, she says.

“On the one hand it’s the easiest leadership position ever because you get to work with talented, hardworking people who hold themselves to high standards. But that’s also what makes it hard—the members have high expectations for you and for the tasks you ask them to channel their talents and their energy into,” she says. “Being editor-in-chief required me to constantly strike balances—between honoring the traditions of a 115-year-old organization and setting a new course for the future, and between trusting people to do good work, while maintaining a consistent standard of excellence.

“I don’t think I’ll ever stop being grateful for the experience. Getting to lead a 100-person organization so early in my career made me a better leader and a more empathetic follower.”

In two years as a teaching assistant and senior judge for the Legal Practice program she enjoyed mentoring 1L students and helping them improve their writing.

“It let me flex some of my teaching muscles and made me a better writer and editor in the process,” she says.

Co-president of the Poverty Law Society, she is most proud of teaming with the Black Law Students Association and Muslim Law Students Association to organize a water drive for Flint that raised enough money to send 38,400 water bottles.

The Low Income Taxpayer Clinic gave Chapman the opportunity to advocate for people living in poverty, her original reason for attending law school; and she enjoyed using her Spanish skills to help clients.

Before law school, Chapman taught fifth and sixth grade social studies and hosted a mock trial.

“The kids loved it, but it in hindsight I didn’t have the training to make the exercise capture the issues and questions that come up in an actual trial,” she says.

So when Chapman volunteered with the Civil Rights Litigation Clearinghouse Schoolhouse at MLaw, working with graduate students in the education school to write a lesson plan based on a recent civil rights case about gender equality, she used her legal training to give teachers the necessary tools to conduct a rigorous and accurate trial simulation.

During a summer stint at the U.S. Attorney’s Office in D.C. in 2015, Chapman watched a national security trial in the District Court for the District of Columbia, an assault trial in D.C. Superior Court, and listened to oral arguments at the D.C. Court of Appeals.

“No one in my family is a lawyer so that time I spent watching trial lawyers was invaluable,” she says. “In my second and third year, I drew on that experience when I thought about the litigation strategy I might pursue in the cases we talked about in class.”

 Last year she was a summer associate at Williams & Connolly in D.C., working on hard, high-stakes legal questions. The partner she most closely worked with had previously worked in the White House; and after Chapman mentioned she had found an interesting dissent from a denial of cert that she thought boded well for a case, minutes later, the lawyer mentioned the dissent to a client, relying only on the summary Chapman gave him.

“Getting to work one-on-one with smart, experienced attorneys who relied on the work I did was a gratifying experience,” she says.

She followed this with a two-month internship in the Enforcement Section at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, designed by Sen. Elizabeth Warren to help working families in the wake of the financial crisis.

“I worked to file suit against companies that exploited consumers, especially vulnerable ones. I was particularly proud of the research I got to do on a settlement agreement with a for-profit college,” she says, adding that she had read Warren’s autobiography during her 1L year, in which Warren talked about how many working families are one emergency away from not being able to make ends meet.

“That resonated with me,” she says. “My mom grew up in Appalachia, my dad grew up in a small town in northwestern Ohio, and I worked with families in Colorado Springs who were getting by until an illness or an accident wiped out all the savings.”

A native of North Bend, Ohio, where her parents Monica and Robert Chapman still reside, Chapman now makes her home in Denver, where she enjoys oil painting, attending plays, and listening to podcasts while running.

“In law school I also became a big fan of NCAA gymnastics—Go Blue, of course,” she says.

 

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