A Calling to Public Defense

A headshot photo of Clayton Cavanaugh
Clayton Cavanaugh

Even as a middle schooler, Clayton Cavanaugh knew he wanted to go to law school to become a public defender. He wasn’t satisfied with the world he saw reflected in the media or overheard in snippets of adults’ conversations.

“You’d see on the news that some person had done something terrible, or you’d hear that someone had gotten into trouble for something, and everyone in the room would kind of condemn that person,” said Cavanaugh, now a third-year student at University of Wisconsin Law School. “There are reasons people do these things, but putting them in a cage doesn’t solve that problem. We shouldn’t condemn people who have done something anti-social and just throw away the key. So, I figured: Why not try to be a part of the boots-on-the-ground effort to stop that?”

During his first year at UW Law, Cavanaugh took a criminal law class with John Gross, director of the Public Defender Project and a clinical associate professor at the Law School. It was further affirmation that his middle school ambitions still resonated.

“He approached the law with that philosophy where it’s not about good guys and bad guys; it’s about equity. It’s about trying to get the socially best answer,” Cavanaugh said. “I remember sitting in his class and hearing him talk about the various aspects of criminal law and asking: ‘Does that make sense to you? Is that what you want out of the law?’ And that carried me forward on how I approached the law and why I stuck with public defense.”

“We shouldn’t condemn people who have done something anti-social and just throw away the key.”

A summer externship through the Public Defender Project gave Cavanaugh the chance to see public defense in action. He went to the Eau Claire jail multiple times a week to interview recently arrested people to see if they qualified for a public defender, and he later represented clients during bail and preliminary hearings. He wrote a successful motion to dismiss that helped one client avoid a potentially lengthy trial and built a rapport with an additional client who soon asked for him by name.

A headshot photo of John Gross
John Gross

“The way the Public Defender Project allows students to really get their feet wet is invaluable,” Cavanaugh said. “It was really, really rewarding. I feel ready to be a public defender.”

He knows it’s not going to be easy or the highest-paying path after graduation. But Cavanaugh is convinced it’s where he can make a difference. It’s one thing to read about racism and bias against the poor playing out in the legal system, but it was another to see it, he noted.

“And while it was heart-wrenching and crushing in a lot of ways, it also clarified the path forward to know what’s broken so we can fix it,” he said.

By Nicole Sweeney Etter