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The power of hands-on learning

Leslie Ridgeway • November 28, 2023
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Clinical Professor Michael Parente (JD 2012) returns to PCJP to motivate young lawyers

While studying for a PhD in economics, and later teaching economics, Professor Michael Parente (JD 2012) became interested in the power of hands-on learning and relationships between institutions and human behavior. That led him to law school, the USC Post-Conviction Justice Project, and a career as a federal public defender. This year, those interests have aligned in his new position — co-director of PCJP.

As a teacher, Parente taught abstract economic concepts through classroom experiments showing how individual choices form prices, and how institutional rules affect those choices. Studying institutions, he was inspired by the role of the criminal defense attorney in the legal profession.

“I admire their role in protecting the rights of indigent defendants, people without resources and marginalized people,” says Parente, who for 10 years served as a deputy federal public defender in Los Angeles. “When we protect those people, we are protecting all our rights.”

Parente’s enthusiasm for post-conviction work was stoked by former PCJP Co-Director Michael Brennan and PCJP’s current Co-Director Heidi Rummel, who both contributed to his growth as a lawyer via the PCJP mission — giving students responsibility over every aspect of working a case, from client meetings to appearing in court.

“I vividly remember sitting next to Mike Brennan and Heidi Rummel during parole hearings for clients and having the sense I was the lawyer on the case,” he says. “I want PCJP students to have that experience where they feel – because they are – the lawyer in that hearing. I don’t want them to feel they are assisting us.”

Parente also looks forward to the policy side of PCJP, working with students on advocacy and legislation to change laws to ensure equity and fairness in the sentencing and parole process. When Parente was at PCJP, the clinic was instrumental in passage of California Assembly Bill 593, expanding habeas relief for people with a history of intimate partner violence related to their crime, and AB 1593, requiring the parole board to consider the history of intimate partner violence when deciding whether to grant parole. “PCJP’s mantra is, if we can’t get relief from the law, we have to change the law,” he says.

When the opportunity to return to PCJP as a clinical professor presented itself, Parente jumped to take it. “It was always kind of on my mind as a dream job — the chance to blend practice with teaching.”

As word got out in the alumni community about Parente’s appointment, classmates reached out to congratulate him and reminisce over their time in the Project — a reminder of the profound effect of clinical education, and the shared camaraderie of the more than 700 students who have passed through PCJP in its 40-year existence.

“It’s a shared experience across generations, and that’s what makes Gould special,” he says.

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