By Lori AthertonMarch 27, 2017
Shortly after he took over as Michigan Law's new public interest director, Alan Kahn, '01, had an a-ha moment that reaffirmed he was where he was meant to be. Kahn had organized a dinner honoring students who were awarded the Dean's Public Service Fellowship, one of the highest honors given to public interest students at Michigan Law. As he sat among the students, listening to their stories of how and why they wanted to make a difference in the world, it became clear to Kahn—who had spent the past 15 years in government and public interest roles—that he had found his people.
"Leaving work in Washington, D.C., to do what, in theory, I hoped would be rewarding, was a leap of faith. My hopes were realized at that dinner," said Kahn, who became the public interest director in the Office of Career Planning last October. "I'm happy to be back at Michigan, and the rewards have come in unexpected ways."
Kahn said his sole obligation as public interest director is to help students use their Michigan Law degree to make a difference as public interest attorneys. "It's exciting that I might be able to help students feel the way I did and still do about public service," he said. "What attracted me to the position is the opportunity to engage with students and discover what excites them about their career prospects and, more so, to help students try their hand in the same way I have in any number of practice settings that run the spectrum of public service."
A double Wolverine, Kahn earned his BA in 1998 before earning his JD. After graduating from Michigan Law, he began his legal career as an associate at Pillsbury Winthrop LLP in New York (now Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman), where he practiced for two years in the litigation group until he was able to realize his goal of becoming a public defender. From there, he moved to the New York Legal Aid Society, where he was a trial attorney in the criminal defense division for more than four years. Despite working nights and weekends—and the glassy-eyed, weary feeling that often accompanied working long hours—Kahn was "passionate about representing, to the best of my ability, those who couldn't afford to hire an attorney. It was a wonderful environment and as collegial as my experience as a student at Michigan, because there was a feeling among all of the attorneys of being in the fight to preserve and protect individuals' rights together."
Though Kahn enjoyed public defense immensely, he had an abiding interest in policy work, and decided to move to Washington, D.C., for what he thought would be a brief stint in government. "A wife and daughter and nearly 10 years later, that turned out not to be the case," laughed Kahn. He worked for six years as an investigative attorney and senior counsel for three U.S. senators (Senators Carl Levin (D-MI), Mary Landrieu (D-LA), and Claire McCaskill (D-MO) in three different Senate oversight subcommittees, where he investigated and drafted legislation on a wide range of issues, including foreign corrupt practices, financial misconduct, and wartime contracting reform.
"It was everything I had hoped it would be, and it exposed me to problems on a macro level, which was very rewarding and different than trying to help an individual at the state level, like I did at the Legal Aid Society," Kahn said. "My work varied with each position and included investigations of financial abuses, housing issues in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, and multiple investigations of waste and fraud in contracting by USAID and the State and Defense departments during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, including private security contracting abuses." Kahn noted that the most lasting change "resulted in Senator McCaskill passing legislation that reformed how our government contracts for services during wartime."
After working on Capitol Hill, Kahn accepted a job as an attorney-adviser within the legal division of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. He joined the Litigation and Oversight Office, where he worked on investigations related to implementation and enforcement of federal consumer financial law for three years before joining the Law School's career planning team.
Kahn said he wanted to make a difference with his Michigan Law degree, and believes thus far, he has done so during his time as a public defender and in government. In the same way that Michigan made public service a career possibility for him, Kahn looks forward to helping public service in whatever form it may take become a reality for the Michigan Law students he supports in his role as public interest director.
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