By Sheila Pursglove
Jennifer Pilette has devoted her law career to helping youngsters -- and shares that expertise as an adjunct professor at Wayne Law, Cooley Law, and the University of Detroit Mercy School of Law, where she and her husband, attorney Bill Ladd, recently were honored with the 2012 UDM Adjunct Faculty of the Year Award.
"I was drawn to juvenile law because I wanted to serve an indigent community and few are more indigent than children," she says. "There's a great need for committed and effective counsel for indigent children and adults. By teaching law school I hope I can convey this to another generation of young lawyers."
Pilette first got interested in the law as a student at Detroit's Cass Tech in the 1970s. As part of a class assignment, she observed a court case in the Wayne County Circuit Court - and set her sights on law school as early as her junior year of high school.
"Even as a high school student I knew I wanted to do that -- to be a lawyer for people who had little to no voice in the community," she says.
After graduating in 1976, Phi Beta Kappa, in Classical Civilization and History from Wayne State University, she earned her JD from Wayne Law three years later. She spent several years with Wayne County Neighborhood Legal Services and then the Juvenile Defender Office, practicing various aspects of poverty law.
While waiting for her bar results in 1979, she clerked for the Michigan State Appellate Defender Office in Detroit and knew she had found her passion in criminal defense. She later became a senior staff attorney and worked there for almost 15 years.
"I enjoyed every day of my work at SADO," she says. "It was and remains an office of committed individuals dedicated to protecting the constitutional rights of indigent criminal defendants. Had I not been appointed to the juvenile referee bench in 1999 I'm sure I would have remained in that position for more years without regret."
Presiding over cases in the juvenile section of the family division of the Wayne County Circuit Court is a very "grassroots" judging experience, she says.
"The juvenile court deals with the most basic issues in people's lives - can they care for their children and themselves? The issues range from poverty to substance abuse to mental illness. The delinquency aspects deal with the needs of children in the school and their supervision in the home and the community. Many times there are no good answers to these problems - it's both challenging and rewarding to assist members of the community on these levels.
"I find it equally fulfilling to assist law students in finding a career path that hopefully involves assisting those less fortunate than themselves," Pilette says.
Pilette has served as a member of the Court Improvement Committee's Education Committee; and was appointed by the Michigan State Court Administrative Office to serve on its Advisory Committee on the Lawyer/Guardian ad Litem Protocol and on the Attorney Training Task Force for lawyers practicing in the area of abuse and neglect.
She also is a contributing editor for Benchbooks published by the Michigan Judicial Institute (MJI) and has been a faculty member for MJI's annual referee training program. A frequent speaker and trainer on behalf of the court, she has an extensive history of training attorneys nationally and locally.
A local, statewide and national speaker in the area of juvenile neglect and delinquency law, Pilette has served on the Wayne County ACLU Board, is the two-term past chair of the Children's Law Section of the State Bar of Michigan and currently serves on the federal Court Improvement Program Statewide Task Force of the Michigan Supreme Court.
A life-long resident of Detroit until 2004, Pilette and her husband now call Ann Arbor home. The couple met when she was a law clerk at SADO and remained friends but it was not until Pilette was appointed to the Juvenile Court that the two dated and married. In her leisure time, she enjoys reading, art, travel, gardening, and spending time with family, which includes four children, ages 27 to 39, from her first marriage and 10 grandchildren.
Attorney Bill Ladd landed in a career in juvenile law quite by chance -- but finding it to be interesting and rewarding, he has been a strong and outspoken voice for youngsters ever since.
"I found the kids I represented to be both entertaining and charming -- sometimes not at the same time!" he says. "Representing kids has always been interesting to me and they are clearly one of our most disenfranchised groups. I've always felt that representing the interests of kids is the best way to get adult institutions to be more sensitive to the least powerful."
Ladd guides the next generation of attorneys to take up the torch, by teaching as an adjunct professor at Cooley Law School and at his alma mater, University of Detroit Mercy School of Law where he teams with Professor Deb Paruch in the UDM Juvenile Appellate Practice Clinic, launched last fall. Students represent children in appeals from decisions of the Juvenile Division of the Wayne County Family Court in cases involving parental rights terminations and juvenile delinquency.
"Having the opportunity to teach law school gives me the chance to interact with young aspiring lawyers and to give them a more practice-based and real-world view of the practice of law," Ladd says. "I hope it gives them a dose of realism and context for what they are doing in law school and how working with kids can be a rewarding career choice."
Ladd, who has also taught at Wayne Law, received the UDM Adjunct Faculty of the Year Award in April, sharing the honor with his wife and fellow UDM adjunct professor, Juvenile Court referee Jennifer Pilette.
Ladd earned a bachelor's degree in history from Swarthmore College -- an interest fueled by his favorite aunt who was a high school history teacher - and his JD from the University of Detroit.
"Law seemed to follow logically from both my interest in history and my interests in social justice," he says.
His first job was as a research attorney with the Michigan State Appellate Defender Office in Detroit, representing indigent defendants.
"I learned how to analyze legal issues and to write legal briefs," he says. "SADO was and is one of the best places in the country to learn how to be an effective and zealous advocate of the disenfranchised. At the same time it was also a very supportive place to work."
He then moved to the Juvenile Defender Office -- later named the Juvenile Division of the Legal Aid and Defender Association (LADA) -- where he learned to be an effective advocate for abused and neglected youngsters and delinquent children, sometimes in federal courts but primarily in the Wayne County Circuit Court, Family Division, Juvenile Section.
"I had the luxury of continuing to do appellate work where it was appropriate in representing my clients," he says. "For much of my time at LADA I was fortunate to work in an organization that was committed to representing children in an aggressive yet caring manner and in supporting me as an attorney."
He was a member of the Wayne County AWOL Task Force, developing alternative strategies for neglected court wards that leave their placements; and was a member of the Wayne County Workgroup on the Representation of Children. He was appointed by the Michigan State Court Administrator's Office to serve on its Advisory Group on Evaluation of the Representation of Children in Child Protective Proceedings, and Advisory Committee on the Lawyer/Guardian ad Litem Protocol.
For the past two years, Ladd has been an appellate and juvenile trial attorney with the Michigan Children's Law Center in Southgate. A nonprofit, tax-exempt corporation that teams with social workers, doctors, psychologists, school personnel and other professionals, MCLC provides legal services to children in trial and appellate courts, advocates for the safety and wellbeing of children in the courts and through other programs and services, and represents children who have been neglected or abused or charged with delinquent behavior.
Ladd, appellate counsel in several notable Michigan appellate cases including, In re Ricks, In re EP, In re AMB, recently argued In re Mays in the Michigan Supreme Court. He is a frequent author and lecturer, and co-author of the chapter on juvenile delinquency in "Michigan Family Law" (6th ed) from the Institute of Continuing Legal Education.
A past president of the Children's Law Section of the State Bar of Michigan and recipient of their 2003 "Child Advocate of the Year" award, Ladd has also been nationally honored by the non-profit organization, Children's Rights and is a "next friend" in the ongoing federal class action, Snyder v Duane B.
"I received the award as a result of my efforts to represent my clients as their next friend in the federal lawsuit brought against Michigan's child welfare system," he says. "I had made efforts to represent the interests of my individual clients who were named plaintiffs in the federal suit and I had also provided general input to the lawyers at Children's Rights regarding more general aspects of the system here in Michigan."
Ladd received Child Welfare Law Certification through the National Association of Counsel for Children, which launched the certification program to recognize the importance of this specialized area of the law.
"The process of preparing for the certification test gave me a chance to broaden my knowledge of this area of the law and to gain some national recognition for specializing in this area of the law for so long," he says.
Published: Tue, May 15, 2012