Service minded: Law student aims for a career as public defender


By Sheila Pursglove
Legal News

When University of Michigan Law School student Allison Horwitz interned at the Orleans Public Defenders office in New Orleans last summer, she learned to fight zealously for her clients.

“I was disturbed to learn about the near constant deprivation of our clients’ humanity,” she says. “I was horrified to see dozens of individuals, almost exclusively black men, in orange jumpsuits and shackled hands and feet, herded in and out of the courtrooms every day.

“In my visits to jail, I learned about the terrible conditions our clients faced. One client explained that he and everyone on his unit had been pepper sprayed and made to sit outside in the rain all night. I learned from my supervising attorneys to persistently advocate for clients, and I listened to clients and tried my best to help tell their stories.”

Horwitz continued to gain experience this past semester, at the Federal Defender Office in Detroit.

“I discovered how the harshness of the federal sentencing guidelines can significantly affect representation at many stages, and is yet another factor stacking the odds against our clients,” she says. “I feel lucky to have had the opportunity learn from creative and relentless attorneys who care deeply for their clients and are committed to fighting for them.”

A 2018 Fellow in the Dean’s Public Service Fellowship Program, Horwitz will intern this summer at the New Hampshire Public Defender’s Office, where she hopes to appear on the record at bail hearings and motions hearings, and even have the opportunity to second chair a trial.

“I want to be a public defender because I believe deeply in people’s basic humanity and I want to be an advocate for the people who the system fails every day,” she says. “The criminal justice system disproportionately affects poor people and people of color at every level. I want to fight against that.

“One attorney at the Federal Defender Office told me she sees being a public defender as a political act, and I really believe that. I’m drawn to the idea of standing up for clients on a daily basis to fight against a system that oppresses poor people and black and brown people. I’m particularly interested in working with non-citizen clients, as they can be in especially vulnerable situations, and that would allow me to continue to work at the intersection of both immigration and public defense. Ultimately, I hope to have a long career as a public defender.”

Horwitz started her career trajectory with a psychology degree from Amherst College in Massachusetts.

“I loved studying people’s everyday behaviors—what motivates people, what scares people, how personalities develop and change, and that there was a scientific way to try to understand why people are the way they are,” she says. “In particular, I loved my class on abnormal psychology—many of the cases we studied were earth-shattering to me because not only could many seemingly bizarre behaviors and disorders be explained often by trauma or by a biological issue in the brain, but the vast majority of abnormal psychology behaviors are both non-dangerous and fixable. I think this sparked my interest in the notion that people are complicated and much more than the worst things they have done,” she adds.

After graduation, Horwitz coached soccer and tutored teen-age girls for a youth development nonprofit in Nicaragua.

“I’m thankful for my experience and I learned and grew enormously. I remember feeling frustrated with the systemic barriers that left so many of our young participants in terrible situations,” she says. “I started thinking that law was the most powerful tool to enact the kind of change I wanted to see, while at the same time giving me the privilege of working directly with people.”

She then spent two years with AmeriCorps, at the Children’s Law Center of Massachusetts, assisting in the representation of unaccompanied immigrant youth by helping prepare applications and translating during meetings and interviews. She also helped clients with collateral matters such as applying for jobs, finding housing, and issues in school.

“This work allowed me to work directly with immigrant kids, helping to tell their stories, many of whom overcame horrific and dangerous experiences to make it to the United States.

“I became especially frustrated when our clients would get picked up on some minor charges, such as driving without a license, and as a result their whole lives would be thrown into yet another tailspin. I wanted to do something about the unfairness of the criminal justice system.”

At MLaw, Horwitz is a student-attorney for the International Refugee Assistance Project (IRAP), helping to represent a family fleeing religious persecution.

She also is co-president of the Michigan Immigrant and Labor Law Association (MILLA). 

“We bring in speakers to discuss issues like the status of DACA, and we work with organizations in the community to provide services like the naturalization clinic we are doing at the end of January,” she says.

Horwitz also serves as secretary for LAW Breaks, and leads service trips over spring break. Last year, her team helped with death penalty appeals at the California Appellate Project. This spring, she will help lead a trip to a detention center in Dilley, Texas, to help immigrant women and children apply for relief.

As an executive editor for the Michigan Journal of Race and Law, Horwitz is writing a note about the lack of oversight in the process of transferring juveniles to adult court, and how this disproportionately impacts youth of color and has particularly harsh consequences for non-citizen kids.

“At Michigan Law, I feel lucky to be part of a close-knit community where I have the opportunity to learn both from inspiring professors and other students with diverse experiences and perspectives,” she says.

For relaxation, Horwitz enjoys hiking and hopes to take a hiking trip in northern Michigan soon; and is passionate about soccer, a sport she played growing up and in college and continues to play at MLaw.

A native of New Haven, Conn., she grew up in nearby Woodbridge with her parents and two brothers.

“I spent a lot of time with my Nana, my mom’s mom, who fought for a number of social justice causes throughout her life,” she says. “She inspired me to get involved with community organizations and stand up for what I believe in.”