Q&A: Amy Peters ('16) - Gideon's Promise Summer Training Institute

Amy Peters ('16), Yohance Christie ('09), and Mark Carraher ('15) (L-R) representing the Lancaster County Public Defender's Office at the 2019 Summer Training Institute

by Bobby Larsen

Amy Peters is a 2016 graduate of Nebraska Law who has worked as a Deputy Public Defender in Lancaster County since 2018. Last summer she was selected to attend the Gideon’s Promise Summer Training Institute, a 14-day “boot camp” in Atlanta for public defenders from across the nation. Peters spoke with JDs Advancing Justice about her career as a public defender and her experience at the Summer Training Institute.

Q: Why did you decide to become a public defender?

I was very fortunate to have been offered an opportunity to clerk at the Lancaster County Public Defender’s Office my second year of law school. Not long into my clerkship, I fell in love with the work and culture and enjoyed many opportunities to develop my litigation skills by practicing under the supervision of some of the brilliant attorneys at my office. After law school I pursued different ambitions, but soon received an offer to return that I could not refuse. I truly believe the Public Defender’s Office is the best place for me to make a difference by practicing “in the trenches.” While I have always dreamed of becoming a lawyer to help those less fortunate, being a public defender means taking a stand for those who might not otherwise have a voice in court while defending the constitution.

Q: Gideon’s Promise is a 501(c)(3) organization named for the 1963 landmark case Gideon v. Wainwright. Its focus is supporting and strengthening public defenders at all levels of their career. This summer you attended the Gideon’s Promise Summer Training Institute, which is described as a 14-day “boot camp.” How did you wind up attending that program?

I am very lucky to work for an office that has been sending new attorneys to this program for many years. However, given the significant investment that Gideon’s Promise makes in participants of the program, the application process was extensive. Among other things, I was required to submit letters of recommendation from colleagues and supervisors, complete several essay questions, and participate in an interview to be considered. Ultimately, I was one of two attorneys from my office chosen to attend during the summer of 2019.   

Q: What were the most important lessons from your two weeks at the Summer Training Institute?

I learned so many important lessons from this program that will forever impact my approach to public defense work and the way I practice law. We focused on a wide range of subjects including trial skills, client counseling, and self-care. However, if I were to summarize my most important takeaway, it would be to never underestimate the importance of storytelling in the work we do as public defenders. One of my favorite quotes that was frequently used during the program was “no person is as bad as the worst thing they have ever done.” By shedding light on the varying circumstances surrounding someone’s life, public defenders can help change the narrative and remind people about the humanity of those we represent.

 Q: The Summer Training Institute lasts for two weeks, but participants then meet one weekend every six months over the next three years and each participant is assigned a public defender mentor; you also now likely know a lot more public defenders from all over the country. How has the Gideon’s Promise community impacted your work as a public defender? 

The Gideon’s Promise community has proven to be an invaluable resource to me as both a public defender and young attorney trying to navigate both the practice of law and the personal struggles that come with the work. It is reassuring to know that at any moment, I have access to a network of dedicated and talented individuals from all over the nation who are willing to lend their advice and support as needed. 

 Q: A legal career in general can be exhausting and jobs in public defense often have high turnover rates. How did the Summer Training Institute address these concerns? 

 One of the major focuses of the Gideon’s Promise program is self-care. Another major focus is helping public defenders figure out our “why” – in other words, our personal reasons for believing in and committing to the profession. Gideon’s Promise teaches us that by unveiling our inner and personal connection to the work we do, allowing ourselves time to focus on self-care, and building a positive supportive network to lean on when the work becomes difficult, we can avoid burnout while striving to be passionate and effective public defenders.

Q: Public defense often seems like a logical choice for public interest-minded law students but other jobs often come with ‘perks’ public defense isn’t able to offer. Why should law students who are considering becoming public defenders continue to pursue that career?

I would encourage law students who are passionate about public interest to do their research and thoroughly investigate the “perks” that a career in public defense might have to offer. For public defender offices that are part of the county system, as in Lancaster County, the benefits package offered is second to none in the private sector. Additionally, there are student loan forgiveness programs that new graduates might be eligible for depending on their circumstances. However, it is important to note that every public defender office is different, and some offices are better equipped than others. Information about the varying salaries and benefits offered to public defenders is often publicly available or can be easily obtained by doing some research. I would also encourage prospective public defenders to investigate and ask questions regarding the office’s capacity to provide support beyond salary and benefits. For instance, does the office have adequate support staff or investigators to assist with the workload? Are there funds available for travel? Is the salary and benefits comparable to what prosecutors in the same jurisdiction receive? These are all important questions to ask when considering any career, but particularly one as demanding and challenging as public defense.

Editor's Note: In addition to its Summer Training Institute, Gideon's Promise also offers a 2L Summer Law Clerk Program. Participating students are paired with a public defender in a Gideon’s Promise partner office for a summer, where they gain valuable exposure to all aspects of effective public defense. 

Bobby Larsen is a second-year student at the University of Nebraska College of Law and a contributing writer for JDs Advancing Justice. Bobby also serves as Vice President of the Equal Justice Society, Community Legal Education Project, and American Constitution Society and as a member of the Student-Faculty Honor Committee, Student Faculty Committee and Pro Bono Committee. He is the college's Equal Justice Works Student Representative and an ex officio member of the Nebraska State Bar Association's Legal Services Committee.