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Mini-Seminars Enrich Student Experience

By Jason Searle, 2L
December 20, 2016

“When I thought about teaching a mini-seminar, I thought a lot of students can go through law school without understanding the indigent defense crisis,” said Professor Eve Brensike Primus, ’01, in a recent interview. Primus taught one of nine mini-seminar course offerings this semester to 12 law students. Primus’s students lauded the seminar as providing a rich academic experience in a unique way for each of them.

Primus has published extensive scholarship on the indigent defense crisis. She also is actively involved in efforts to reform indigent defense systems, and she dedicated her early career to fighting it boots-on-the-ground style as a public defender in Maryland.

Primus said she hoped that teaching a mini-seminar about the poor quality of defense often provided to indigent people would inspire students to help correct the inequities as they begin their careers. “One of the things I would like Michigan students to understand is their ability to see a problem and come up with creative solutions to it. Sometimes I worry students don’t have enough confidence in themselves to take that leap,” Primus said, adding that the systemic problems students could choose to help tackle go far beyond the indigent defense crisis. She hoped students would come out of the seminar with an appreciation of how systemic problems in the legal system are not just for others to deal with—they affect all of us, and we must be the ones to solve them.

Scott Gallagher, a 2L, said, “[t]he biggest lesson I’ll take away is the limitations of litigation for social change compared to more effective political avenues. My favorite part was how Professor Primus could somehow slide between talking about her kids, giving us a condensed lesson on impact litigation and making jokes, all within the space of a few minutes.”

Over the course of 10 meetings, the seminar covered a host of topics under the umbrella of the indigent defense crisis. The semester started with an overview about the primary causes—underfunding and a lack of criminal defense attorneys. The early part of the course also covered the primary legal precedents controlling the scope and meaning of the right to counsel. Later classes discussed some of the wrinkles in the crisis, such as the right to “effective” counsel. This issue has arisen over time, as experience has shown how criminal defendants can have counsel and still be denied justice because their appointed counsel performs so deficiently—from failing to meet with clients, to falling asleep during trial, to showing up to trial hungover. The seminar highlighted the advantages of political movement, state defense commissions, and data-based practices to tackle deficiencies in the indigent defense system. Some alternative solutions analogized the legal field to the medical field in ways that considered how the scope of defense counsels’ roles could be tightened using paraprofessionals to take on some of the more routine, less legally intensive tasks that lawyers currently perform.

Mini-seminars are a staple at Michigan Law, allowing students an opportunity to round out their educations with topics as varied as Anatomy of a Supreme Court Case, The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict: Does International Law Matter?, and Collecting Art: Museums and the Law. They typically are taught in faculty members’ homes.

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