After nearly a decade as an engineer at 3M, CAMILLE BRYANT left to attend law school. She has worked as a state public defender since graduating from law school.
Tell us about your work as an assistant public defender.
I work and advocate for people who have been charged with a crime and are unable to afford an attorney. My role is to protect my clients in their interactions with the criminal justice system. My work includes challenging the constitutionality of police conduct, holding the prosecutor and the court to the requirements of due process, trial work, and, if required, mitigation or minimization at sentencing or probation violations. Often my work goes beyond the courtroom, including helping clients to find and engage in services for mental health or addiction, housing, and employment or education opportunities. I have found that my clients by and large suffer from a lack of resources and systemic exclusion from the opportunities to pursue education, family, and career. They are the “canaries in the coalmine” pushed to the fringes of our community and exposed to the failings and neglect of our society.
Earlier in your career, you were a chemical engineer. What prompted you to go to law school?
I enjoy problem solving in a way that has a direct, positive impact on the quality of people’s lives. As an engineer, I worked on pollution reduction, sustainable development, and employee health and safety. These areas were of particular interest because they were protective of the community. The impact, however, was harder to measure in immediate and individual terms. Law school was an opportunity to learn a different set of skills for a different kind of problem-solving with a more immediate and quantifiable impact on individual’s well-being. Being a public defender provides the opportunity to both help my individual clients and to impact systemic change in policing, constitutional rights, and community concepts of justice.
Has practicing law met your goals?
I feel honored to represent my clients during the difficultly and stressful process of criminal court.
What aspects of your practice are particularly challenging and how do you meet those challenges?
I work in a system where the odds are often overwhelmingly against my clients. I listen daily to people who are marginalized and sometimes feel beaten and feel ignored. As a public defender, I have the legal tools to fight for my clients, but I still often experience feelings of powerlessness just as my clients must. I have found that engaging in and volunteering for committees to develop proactive approaches to systemic change has helped me combat the compassion fatigue of individual client representation.
You serve on the board of the Minnesota Association of Black Lawyers. Would you tell us about your experience with MABL and any particular initiatives you’re involved in?
I’ve been on the MABL board for two years. The organization is in a period of reevaluation to ensure that we are meeting our membership’s needs and goals. One initiative that I started this year is our policy series “Legislating Equity.” The purpose of the series is to examine the policies that affect our education system, housing, health disparities, and economic development. We want to begin the conversation about what data-driven policies are working, what is not working, and what changes would yield better outcomes for all communities.