Able assistant Former intern now serving in county prosecutorial role


– Photo by Paul Janczewski

Lia Clarkson, a special assistant attorney general, is a graduate of the University of Michigan and Michigan State University College of Law.

By Paul Janczewski
Legal News

Lia M. Clarkson was born to be a prosecutor. She just didn’t realize it at first.

Her moment of clarity came during the later stages of her undergraduate studies at the University of Michigan. Her father, Ward L. Clarkson, was an assistant prosecuting attorney in Shiawassee County, and then the prosecuting attorney there. He later became a judge in the 66th District Court.

“Growing up, I spent a lot of time in my dad’s office with my brother, before he was a ajudge and while he was a judge,” she said. “I guess maturing had something to do with being able to recognize he had a very admirable career, and I found it was something I would actually consider, and looked into it.”

Clarkson, 27, is now herself a prosecutor, working as a special assistant attorney general for the state, but in Genesee County under Prosecutor David Leyton.

Last year, a program was instituted by Gov. Rick Snyder and Attorney General Bill Schuette to place special assistants in Leyton’s office to help distressed cities along the I-75 corridor by increasing police and prosecutors. The move also would help Leyton keep up with an increased caseload since his office has been depleted in recent years by layoffs and cutbacks.

Genesee County became the first to utilize this innovative plan. The temporary assignment placed four special assistants in Leyton office for a one-year period, although it recently was increased to two years. Along with Clarkson, others placed in the positions were former Saginaw County Prosecutor Mike Thomas, former Flint defense attorney Barney Whitesman, and Brian Kolodziej, a former intern who worked under a Prosecuting Attorneys Association of Michigan (PAAM) program. Both he and Clarkson worked as assistant prosecutors in Leyton’s office under PAAM a year or so ago.

Clarkson, who grew up and still lives in Corunna, didn’t really know what career she would eventually land in, but she was pretty sure it would not be in law.

After high school, Clarkson enrolled at the U-M, earning a degree in sociology in 2008. But sometime during her junior and senior years, she realized that “there really wasn’t a whole lot I could do with a sociology degree.”

So gradually, a light went off for Clarkson, and she knew that a law degree would be her best choice.

“I didn’t really ever consider it until I actually had enough sense to realize it might be good,” she said.

So Clarkson committed what some in this state consider a sin. From U-M, she was accepted to the Michigan State University College of Law. And she did take “a ton of grief from everyone.” At first, even her parents kidded her when she went to U-M.

“They’re die-hard Spartans, so it broke their heart when I went to U-M,” she said.

Later, others from U-M chided her decision to go to MSU, good-naturedly, of course.

“Law school was great,” said Clarkson, who earned a scholarship to attend MSU College of Law. “It took me a long time to decide where I wanted to end up, but I liked MSU because it was in the Big Ten, a big school on a big campus.”

During law school, Clarkson served an internship at the AG’s office in the Consumer Protection Division, and was a summer intern the following year at the Genesee County Prosecutor’s Office in the PAAM program.

There she was exposed to the world of criminal prosecution, conducting preliminary examinations for felonies in both the 67th and 68th district courts, while also handling pre-trial conferences and reviewing warrants.

“They give you a lot of leeway here, and a lot of responsibilities, but in a good way,” Clarkson said. “It allows you to learn the practice of law, and it’s a bit overwhelming at first, but everyone in this office was very helpful and welcoming to new attorneys.”

When her PAAM program ended, Clarkson came back and did an externship for law school credits in the juvenile neglect division, and then served as a judicial advisory assistant with Genesee County Family Court Judge John Gadola. Nine months later, after passing the bar exam, she returned to the Prosecutor’s Office.

When those positions became available, Leyton and his staff actually asked Clarkson to apply. Her immediate supervisor, Tammy Phillips, a managing assistant prosecuting attorney, said Clarkson excelled when she was there in the PAAM program.

“She was an absolutely fantastic intern, so when the opportunity came from the governor’s office, she (and Kolodziej) were tops on our list,” Phillips said.

Clarkson said she was “flattered” to be considered for the job, and excited to embrace the opportunity.

She said Phillips is “wonderful” to work for, and has “a wealth of knowledge,” and has taught her plenty about the ins and outs of being a prosecutor.

“This program for distressed cities in Michigan has been put into effect for places like Flint, and I’m here for a reason,” Clarkson said.

But this work can be stressful, and Clarkson has returned to playing tennis and running, completing her first Crim 10-mile race last August in Flint.

“The goal was to finish, and I didn’t crawl over the finish line,” she joked.

Her leisure time activities help her handle the day-to-day emotional toll of being a criminal prosecutor.

“You have to have some sort of release because it‘s hard not to take work home with you,” she said. “It turned out that I liked the work more than I thought I would. It was a pretty scary and intimidating experience at first. I never thought I‘d be in court every day of my life. But I love being here. I love the people and the work. I still have a lot to learn in this profession, but I’m taking my future one year at a time.”