Cooley clinic changes name to reflect broader West Michigan involvement



By Cynthia Price
Legal News

Students at Thomas M. Cooley Law School’s Grand Rapids campus who are interested in learning more about indigent defense will have more options going forward, because the Public Defenders Clinic will now cover two counties.

Cooley’s Kent County Public Defenders Clinic got underway in 2010, working with attorneys at the well-respected Office of the Defender under the direction of Richard Hillary.

Now, at the request of Muskegon County Public Defender Fred Johnson, himself a Cooley alumnus, students have the opportunity to get involved on the ground floor of the office there.

The newly-named West Michigan Public Defenders Clinic has already placed five students with Johnson’s office.

Michigan Court Rule 8.120 reads, “Law students and recent law graduates, under supervision by a member of the state bar, may staff public and nonprofit defender offices, and legal aid clinics that are organized under a city or county bar association or an accredited law school or for the primary purpose of providing free legal services to indigent persons.,” and proceeds to set up standards and limitations for student participation.

There are many differences between the two public defender offices the clinic will serve, including the fact that their structures are not at all similar. In Kent County, the office is a non-profit organization, offering its services to the county through a contractual agreement.

Muskegon County government has opened up its own department, and employs Johnson as well as all of the assistant public defenders. The county commission charged Administrator Bonnie Hammersley with exploring the best way to address the defense of indigent people accused of crimes, and members of the task force she created liked what they saw in Washtenaw County. The Muskegon County system is modeled after that very successful office.

Cooley Assistant Dean and Associate Professor Tracey Brame and Professor Tonya Krause-Phelan run the clinic, teach the weekly seminar associated with it, and supervise the students right alongside the lawyers at the two defenders’ offices.

Both Brame and Krause-Phelan have a strong background in public defense, enabling them to understand what the students may face. As Brame says, “I was a public defender myself. I’m very, very passionate about the provision of services to indigent clients.” Some of Brame’s experience was obtained in a model Washington, D.C., public defenders’ office.

Krause-Phelan spent over 14 and a half years as a private criminal defense attorney. “But I got my start right in this office,” she said Wednesday just before meeting with the extern class at the Office of the Defender. “Dick Hillary gave me my first job, and I learned a lot.”

The students meet with Brame and Krause-Phelan weekly for instructional sessions; for example, this week Krause-Phelan was covering sentencing guidelines and pre-sentencing reports.The two are also available for discussion, but much of what the law students learn is through “shadowing” the assistant public defenders.

The experience so far in Muskegon has been a little frustrating, but when all is said and done satisfying, for the students. “In Muskegon, it’s a nascent office, only open since January, so they’re still trying to figure some of this out at times,” Brame explains. “Personally, when I heard about it I just about jumped out of my skin. It’s not every day that you get to be part of something new and exciting like this, and I?think Fred’s vision is that the students can play a big role in shaping what the office looks like. What an opportunity they have!”

Even in Kent County, Brame says, “It took us a couple of years for the lawyers to get used to the externships, but now four years into it, the students and lawyers are all in a very nice groove and they appreciate the  help. They’ve recently hired one of the former clinic students,” she adds proudly.

The Kent County Office of the Defender website says, “These students assist the attorneys in legal research, interviewing witnesses, summarizing police reports and evidence, and generally assisting the attorneys in case preparation. This has proven beneficial to the student, the attorney, and most importantly the defendant.”

The Muskegon County Office of the Public Defender has run into some other problems which so far have limited the students’ participation. Chief among them is that the judges in the 60th District Court chose not to be involved this first year, preferring to adopt a “wait-and-see” attitude. 

This means that students from Cooley and the other law schools involved have less of a role to play at the present time. “It was hard for them to get the hands-on experience,” Brame explains. “In circuit court  cases the stakes are usually much higher, so it’s mostly in district court that the students are able to hit the ground running.”

Though the use of the student interns was one of the issues for the district court judges, Brame and Krause-Phelan both say they are willing to speak with those judges to reassure them about the level of supervision the students receive and their skills and abilities.

Brame says, “The students add a lot. They infuse a curiosity and energy, even for the attorneys.”

And Krause-Phelan observes, “That student enthusiasm helps everyone, the clients of course but also the attorneys and the judges. It helps keep the passion for the legal system going.”

Students were able to be very helpful in helping Johnson’s office and the Muskegon County Clerk in putting on an “expungement clinic” May 3. Brame said the event pulled in about 500 people.

She adds that the Kent County Office of the Defender is now assisting indigent clients with misdemeanors in the 63rd District Court, and the student externs will gain that experience as well.