Prison project sparked Wayne student's interest in law career


by Sheila Pursglove
Legal News

During her undergrad years at the University of Michigan, Hannah Fielstra was involved in the Prison Creative Arts Project, working on creative writing skills and writing and performing a play with young men incarcerated at a juvenile detention center in Highland Park. 

“Though I wasn’t directly involved with the criminal justice system, this was my first true introduction the effects of the system, as well as the Detroit community,” she says. “It also affirmed my beliefs in the power of the arts and storytelling,” she adds. “It’s so important for advocates to perfect the art of storytelling – lawyers need to be able to accurately articulate their clients' case in a way that is not only truthful, but persuasive. Stories shape not only the case, but also the lens through which we view and understand the law. Some of the best lawyers and advocates I know are also some of the best storytellers – I was lucky to learn these lessons from them early on.”

Fielstra decided to follow in the footsteps of her father, an attorney and co-owner of Fielstra Shibley in Muskegon prior to his retirement, and where she worked as a legal assistant after U-M graduation.

“I’m forever thankful for such a supportive role model,” she says.

She headed to Wayne Law in 2014.

“I had my heart set on Wayne from the beginning and it’s been an incredible experience these past two years,” she says. 

Fielstra particularly likes how the law school is intertwined with the Detroit community, with clinics, events, volunteering opportunities and classes such as Teaching Law in High School, a class she recently took and taught at River Rouge High School. These opportunities not only allow students to give back to the community, but provide them with a chance to learn from the community where they will work, she notes. 

Fielstra is president of the Student Bar Association Board of Governors that provides a voice for students.

“Its most important function is the opportunity for students to sit on faculty committees and attend faculty meetings – representatives serve as liaison between students and faculty, playing an active role in ensuring that students' needs are addressed,” she says. “I’m humbled to be the president of an organization that is given the power to effect change within the university.”   

Last year, she served as an article editor for the Journal of Law in Society, the scholarly arm of the Damon J. Keith Center for Civil Rights, the “intersection” of the law school and the local community. Article editors also chose and completed a note and had the opportunity to be published. Fielstra’s topic was about children in the adult criminal justice system.

“I used Supreme Court cases, which provide good arguments for the fact that children are developmentally and behaviorally different from adults, to argue that children should be treated from adults from their very first encounter with the justice system through sentencing and into incarceration,” she says.

In the coming year she will serve as Symposium Director for the Journal of Law in Society, and plan the annual Symposium.

“It’s an event open to the public which engages the local Detroit community, including the local legal community and the Wayne Law community, and is the culmination of the work product and spirit of the Journal,” she says.  

Fielstra enjoyed learning from veterans in the criminal defense field during her semester as a legal research intern at the Federal Defender Office in Detroit, her first introduction to federal court and its procedure.

“In addition to improving my research and writing skills, I also was given an opportunity to represent clients for their misdemeanor tickets in duty court,” she says. “I’m grateful to be given this learning opportunity while still in law school.”

She gained hands-on experience in family law and elder law at the Free Legal Aid Clinic, conducting interviews, assisting in deciding whether people qualify as potential clients, and attending court appearances and appearing on the record on behalf of clients.

“FLAC provides many opportunities to learn by doing, something so important to helping law students to become successful practicing attorneys,” she says.

Fielstra has set her sights on becoming a public defender or working in the area of civil rights litigation.

“I’m committed to doing some type of work in the public interest field,” she says.

She is already gaining valuable experience through the National Lawyers Guild, where, she notes, she has been able to learn from some of the best attorneys in this field; and volunteering at Pitt McGehee Palmer
and Rivers in Royal Oak to work on the Flint water contamination class action lawsuit.

In her leisure time, the Ferndale resident enjoys reading, writing, music, and art, and exploring everything the Motor City and surrounding area has to offer.

“I enjoy the rich history and all of the opportunities to learn through the people, music, art and food,” she says.