U-M Law graduate to work as public defender in New York City

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By Sheila Pursglove
Legal News

Austin Perry spent three years working for the California Association of Food Banks in Oakland, Calif., doing development work to support defending and increasing access to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and Supplemental Security income (SSI) program.

“I was interested in the ‘wonky’ stuff, but I was even more interested in the stories of people whose lives had been thrown off course due to their encounters with the criminal justice system,” says Perry, a May graduate from the University of Michigan Law School.

One of the main policy priorities was eliminating California's lifetime ban from SNAP for prior drug felony convictions.

“We eventually got the ban lifted in 2014, which means thousands of families can count on having more food on the table should they fall on hard times,” Perry says. “I liked writing grants, but I also missed client-centered work. Seeing how our system inequitably burdens and surveils poor folks led me to leave my desk and head back to school.”   

The Northwestern University alumnus started at MLaw in 2016, for what he terms the most humbling three years of his life. “But now I’m looking forward to a career in indigent defense where I hope to help my clients minimize or avoid entirely all of the collateral consequences that a criminal charge can bring,” he says.   

His career will launch this fall, as a public defender with New York County Defender Services.   

“I’m a little nervous about moving to Manhattan, but I’m excited to face off with Cy Vance’s team and work with folks who have been doing this work for decades,” he says. “Long-term, I’d love to help train future public defenders, whether as a supervising attorney at NYCDS or a clinical professor at a criminal defense clinic. Right now, though, I can’t wait to be back in the trenches.

“I owe a great debt to Professor Eve Primus, who teaches criminal procedure and heads up MDefenders, an affinity group for people interested in public defense,” he adds. “I wouldn’t have my job lined up if not for her and the community she’s created.”

Perry notes that nothing could have prepared him better for a career as a public defender than last summer’s position with the Colorado State Public Defender, working in the Glenwood Springs office, three hours west of Denver.   

“If you want to go into public defense, I can’t think of a better group of folks to learn from,” he says. “I had my own caseload, wrote and argued motions for a good half-dozen cases, and ended up first-chairing my first-ever jury trial, which resulted in an acquittal.

“Besides being in an absolutely beautiful part of the country, I was most grateful for the level of trust given to me by both the office and my clients. I was nervous, I was new, but I was expected to work. “   

Perry found the Michigan Advocacy Program (MAP) was a great introduction to MLaw.

“I can’t recommend it enough,” he says. “Right off the bat, it gives you a support network you can rely on to have your back when it comes to raising issues related to race and class during lecture.”   

He spent three semesters working for the Michigan Innocence Clinic under the direction of Professors David Moran, Imran Syed, and Becky Hahn.

“It’s slow, grinding work, but the results are incredible,” Perry says. “Just two months ago, MIC got a full exoneration for Richard Phillips, who had been behind bars for almost half a century for a murder he didn’t commit.

“I don’t have any notches in my belt yet, but I’ve enjoyed my time investigating cases and have spent long hours typing up motions for relief from judgment and federal habeas petitions. Visiting a client who’s been in prison for years for something you’re convinced they didn’t do is at once terrifying and awe-inspiring. The folks we work with are some of the most resilient people I’ve ever met.”

In his 1L year, he learned from Prof. Steve Gray, at the Michigan Unemployment Insurance Clinic. Although going into it Perry knew absolutely nothing about unemployment insurance, within three months he and his clinic partner were representing clients at hearings.

“We were helping folks avoid tens of thousands of dollars worth in wrongfully-assessed penalties,’ he says. “It’s an amazing opportunity for a 1L to have.”

Perry, who was honored with an Excellence in Pro Bono Service Award, spent his 1L and 2L spring breaks volunteering in the LawBreaks program, working with DNA-People’s Legal Services in Window Rock, Ariz., capital of the Navajo Nation—with more than 300,000 people across 27,000 square miles, the largest and most populated reservation in the United States.    

“Sadly, they’ve had to shutter several offices due to funding cuts, but they still do amazing work,” he says. “We worked on everything from civil commitment cases to landlord-tenant disputes. One of my buddies is working for the Navajo DOJ starting next fall and I can’t wait to visit him.”   

Arizona was familiar territory—Perry had spent his summer after college graduation doing backcountry trail construction alongside a crew of mostly Navajo teens, and signed up for LawBreaks in order to return to this beautiful part of the country.

“However, I soon found myself fascinated by the Navajo legal system and how it pairs Anglo-American common law with Navajo tradition. I took Federal Indian Law this past year to learn more about the intersection of tribes and the law, but I feel like I only scratched the surface.”

He also volunteered as a Street Law site leader at the Washtenaw County Juvenile Detention Center, leading weekly trips to teach lessons on civics and criminal law.

“Despite the fact they were incarcerated, the kids were by and large always positive—and hilarious,” he says. “For example, one week our icebreaker was something along the lines of ‘If you could be any cheese, what type of cheese would you be?’ One kid said, ‘Pepperjack, because I’m hot,’ another said, ‘Cheddar, 'cause I’m sharp.’

“I loved spending time with the kids and fielding their questions. After being surrounded by people my age all day, it was refreshing to hang out with a bunch of teenagers, discussing the law as it actually affected them. There was no pretension at all.”

The Missouri native has made many friends during his three years as a Wolverine.

“I’d heard stories about how much backstabbing goes on in law school, but I’m happy to report that my back has remained 100 percent dagger-free,” he says. “MLaw draws good people. They’re so good, in fact, that as a big ol’ extrovert, I usually had to stash myself in a coffee shop way off campus in order to get any studying done.”

He already is missing MLaw traditions, including hosting the Student Funded Fellowships auction that raised thousands of dollars to support public interest students working unpaid jobs; being humiliated and half-naked onstage during the annual Mr. Wolverine all-male beauty pageant (“It’s for a good cause!” he says); and sporting bumps and bruises after sledding down the sand dunes in Leelanau County on the Environmental Law Society’s annual trip up north.“More than anything, I’ve enjoyed the community here at MLaw and I’m gonna miss it terribly,” he says.

Perry served on the committee for the Nannes 3L Challenge, conceived and funded by MLaw alumnus John Nannes, a partner in Skadden Arp's Washington, D.C., office. Nannes donates $250 to a student’s chosen law school student organization(s) if the student pledges to make a gift to MLaw in each of the first four years after graduation.

This year, the Challenge went with a Harry Potter/Hogwarts theme.

“John Nannes is definitely Dumbledore-adjacent, just with a far more sensible moustache in place of that wizardly beard,” Perry says. “In terms of his generosity, devotion to his school, and overall kindness, they're really just about equal. As someone who has been involved with student orgs who often got by on a shoestring budget, his contributions mean the world.”

Inspired by “Harry Potter” author J.K. Rowling's chocolate frog collectible cards that are packaged with candy, Perry and his team set to work with Photoshop to make trading cards featuring professors and information about the Challenge.
“I took the liberty of placing all of our professors’ faces on the bodies of various Harry Potter characters,” he says.

“Trust me, you haven’t lived ’til you've seen Professor (Daniel) Crane on a broom or Professor (Sam) Bagenstos with a miniature Norwegian Ridgeback on his shoulder.”

 

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