Classes to Take at Michigan Law if you are Interested in Indigent Defense

In addition to your first-year, required criminal law course, there are a number of other courses available at U of M Law for aspiring public defenders. Below is a list of essential courses that any future public defender should take as well as a number of other optional courses that future defenders may want to take depending on their schedules and on the type of defense work they want to do:

Essential Courses

  • Two-part Criminal Procedure Series: At Michigan, we offer students a two-part introduction to criminal procedure, and aspiring public defenders would do well to take both parts. The first part is a course entitled Criminal Justice: Investigation & Police Practices. This is the basic investigations course and serves as an introduction to important criminal procedure issues that all public defenders routinely encounter, such as search and seizure, confession law, and right to counsel issues. Some people refer to this as the investigations course or the cops and robbers course. It addresses the criminal procedure issues that arise during police investigations in the pre-trial period. This course is typically offered every year at the law school. The second half of criminal procedure is covered in Criminal Procedure: Bail to Postconviction Review. This course covers the criminal procedure rights that apply at trial, sentencing, and on appeal. Many people refer to this half of the criminal procedure series as the bail to jail course. This course is also typically offered every year.
    • A Note About Order: Although many students opt to take these two classes in chronological order, meaning that they take investigations before they take bail to jail, you do not need to take them in that order. One does not serve as a prerequisite or stepping stone to the other.
    • A Note About the Criminal Procedure Survey Course: Michigan Law regularly offers a one-semester criminal procedure survey course that is designed to be a condensed version of the two-part series. As the footnotes on the course registration website will tell you, a student who takes the survey course is prohibited from taking either investigations or bail to jail and vice versa. If you want to be a public defender, you should take the two-part series rather than the survey. The survey is designed for students who want to get a taste of criminal procedure without going into the same level of depth that the two-part series offers.
  • Evidence: The rules of evidence shape the entire trial and good public defenders have to know what can and cannot be used against their clients. Thus, all aspiring public defenders need to take evidence. Evidence is offered multiple times a year at Michigan and is taught by a host of different professors.
  • Immigration and Nationality: Public defenders are constantly plea bargaining in the shadow of their clients’ immigration consequences. After Padilla v. Kentucky, 559 U.S. 356, 130 S. Ct. 1473 (2010), public defenders are constitutionally obligated to know about and inform their clients of certain immigration consequences before permitting them to enter into a guilty plea. Immigration law is complex and difficult to pick up on your own so if you want to be a public defender you should take a basic introduction to immigration course.
  • Clinic: Hiring committees in public defender offices want to know that you have been in court before and enjoy the process of litigation. They want to know that you have been trained in advocacy and have some experience representing an actual client. Taking a clinic is, as a result, a must for an aspiring public defender. Because clinics can be competitive to get into, you should apply early to get into a clinic. If you want to be an appellate defender, you might be drawn to the Criminal Appellate Practice Clinic or the Federal Appellate Litigation Clinic. In these clinics, students handle criminal appeals. The primary difference is that the Criminal Appellate Practice Clinic handles state appeals whereas the Federal Appellate Litigation Clinic handles appeals in the Sixth Circuit. If you want to be a trial level defender, you might be drawn to the juvenile justice clinic, the general civil-criminal clinic, or the innocence clinic. If you want to do postconviction work, the innocence clinic might be your clinic of choice. Once you decide what clinic you are interested in, you should reach out to the professor who is teaching that clinic to tell him/her that you want to be a public defender and explain why that particular clinic is important to you.

Optional Courses


There are a number of other courses that are of interest to aspiring public defenders, including Prisons and the Law, Policing and Public Safety, Public Interest Litigation, Habeas Corpus, Forensic Science and the Law, Federal Criminal LawComputer Crimes, Selected Topics on Fourth Amendment LawEnvironmental Crimes, Topics in Criminal Law Theory and Collateral Consequences of Criminal Convictions. In addition, there are a number of practice simulations that will help to shape your advocacy skills including Appellate Advocacy, Evidence Practicum, Federal Prosecution and Defense, Fundamentals of Appellate Practice, and Trial Practice. Finally, some students will opt to do an externship in a public defender office during their law school careers. This is like a summer internship only it is during the year and includes mentorship, a journal, and a paper-writing component.