Inside the offices of the State Attorney and Public Defender in Pensacola is where many young lawyers, fresh off the graduation stage, really start to put their law education where their mouth is. What they lack in paychecks they make up for in experience.
After those thick books, mock trials, suits and one grueling bar exam our attorneys are still not fully equipped to lay down the law. Some haven’t even seen a courtroom, yet. That’s why so many lawyers jump out of law school and into the State Attorney’s or Public Defender’s office. Whether their first trial is about illegal red snapper or an angry man named Dogbite, lawyers learn more about the law when they actually practice it.
“You don’t learn anything about trying a case in school,” said Assistant Public Defender Jennifer Demming. “The classes are nothing like here. I had a trial within a day or two of working here. I didn’t even know where to sit.”
The lessons they learn at the two offices are what shape them into the lawyers they are today and Pensacola lawyers are no different.
“It’s the best route to developing skills as any type of lawyer,” State Attorney Bill Eddins said of the two offices. “These are the only two offices left in our society where you can develop skills to be a successful lawyer.”
Shock to Your System
Eddins has been a lawyer for 38 years and says he still loves it. As an undergrad in college he knew he wanted a job that was interesting. After taking a stab at teaching, Eddins went to Florida State University College of Law and found a job he was not only good at, but enjoyed.
“I was always very curious,” he said.
Things have changed since Eddins first started practicing the law.
“There’s been an increase in violence,” Eddins said. “—present throughout America in rural and urban counties. When I was a young lawyer there were knife fights and fist fights. The use of weapons has exploded.”
His right-hand woman is Adrienne Emerson. She graduated from University of Florida’s Levin College of Law and came back to Pensacola, where she grew up, for an externship with the State Attorney’s office.
“There’s no way to prepare for this job,” said Emerson. “It’s a shock to your system.”
As a supervisor of county court – or jack of all trades as Emerson put it – she has her work cut out for her. But she enjoys the fast paced office and has been there for almost nine years. She oversees several young lawyers at a time who are starting out where she began.
“This experience is really what you make of it,” Emerson said. “You control how successful you want to be. Take your lumps by trial and error and guard your reputation and credibility with your life.”
Under Emerson’s wing is Jessica Smagacz. She has been an assistant state attorney for two years since graduating from Florida Coastal School of Law. Like any lawyer will tell you, learning the law compared to practicing the law is night and day.
“The big difference is in law school you see the law on paper, here you see it come to life,” she said.
Of course, your first cases out of law school are never exciting. They’re more comical, such as the case of possession of an illegal red snapper and other animal laws.
“I didn’t know there was a bag limit on squirrels,” Smagacz said.
Smagacz enjoys working at the State Attorney’s Office. She really couldn’t say otherwise with her supervisor sitting across from her. One day, she’d like to handle cases that deal with adopted children. She has two younger siblings that are adopted.
“I can put my head on my pillow at night and know I’m doing something good for the community,” Smagacz said. “I’m here to help.”
Working for the State Attorney or Public Defender can also give you a different outlook on the community you’ve grown up in. Seeing the amount of crime there is in your city can be disturbing. It’s best to make light in whatever situation you can.
Charlie Wiggins is a partner for the litigation group at Beggs & Lane – one of the oldest firms in Pensacola. You’d imagine his office would be nothing but pinstripes, but hung on the walls is music memorabilia—Lollapalooza poster, a shiny red guitar and even his DeLuna Fest pass. Filed away are police reports he kept as a young attorney. There are odd nicknames (such as Dogbite), petty bar fights and even a dispute over a damaged couch in the owner’s front yard.
“They’re a riot,” Wiggins said. “Stories you get from working in the criminal department are funnier than civil cases.”
Wiggins enjoyed being a prosecutor at the State Attorney’s Office even if he wasn’t exactly sure why.
“I didn’t have to visit the jail as much,” he joked.
Wiggins worked under Curtis Golden. He said Golden “ran an ethical and professional outfit.”
“He was a legend in his field,” Wiggins said.
Before a lawyer has their first trial case, they don’t know how to use the fancy jargon they’ve been taught. Those first cases set the bar for future litigation.
“Until you sit with a client or in front of a judge you have no idea how the law works,” Wiggins said. “Would you want a doctor who had only read medical textbooks?”
Defending the Public
James Owens, the public defender of the First Judicial Circuit, wanted to be a football coach growing up. Although his team wears suits instead of jerseys, he feels he has realized his dream through the law.
“My father thought it would be a good profession,” Owens said about attending Cumberland School of Law. “There’s a competitive side. Trying cases is very competitive and that appealed to me. Now, I get to coach—or train—young lawyers.”
Owens started practicing the law at the State Attorney’s Office before he became Public Defender.
“He came over to the dark side,” chimed one of the assistant public defenders.
“Curtis Golden was from Milton, I was from Milton,” he said.
Inside a conference room in the Public Defender’s Office sits seven assistant public defenders. They earn their meager pay by standing up for those that cannot afford a private attorney.
“I wanted to help people,” said Chris Madden, of his decision to work at the Public Defender’s office. “I can identify with the clients. I can see myself in them. I know what it’s like to be against a force that has a lot more resources than you.”
Sometimes, it seems that being a public defender means defending yourself.
“Our job is not for every case to be ‘not guilty,’” Madden said. “It’s not just about getting the criminal out. We do our best to make sure the state does its job and protects our client’s rights.”
“We don’t win, the prosecutor loses,” added Asma Anwar.
Sometimes, even the clients they defend can be ungrateful.
“You go to the jail to meet you’re client and they say, ‘I want a real attorney,’ said Amanda Edge.
Whether or not lawyers want to work in criminal cases for the rest of their professional career, they learn to develop a thick skin working for the state.
“Public defenders get a bad rep,” said Pat Hammergren of Shell, Fleming, Davis & Menge. “But some of the best attorneys I know worked there.”
Despite student loan debt and disrespect of these yet-to-be seasoned pros, there are people out there that appreciate what the Public Defender’s Office does.
“I have artwork that clients have made me,” Edge said. “I had a client call me on his two hour furlough. He was turning himself in, but he called to thank me for being there for him.”
Assistant state attorneys and public defenders usually start with misdemeanor cases. While they don’t have to start digging into murder cases, they do see how unfair life can be.
“Most of my caseload is people who can’t afford drivers licenses,” Madden said. “They drive to work and get pulled over and now they’re in an even worse situation.”
Lauren Cobb, a Pensacola native, had her first judge trial during her first week of work. A homeless man had caught an illegal red snapper. He was found guilty.
“There are clients who are being accused of way more important things,” said Katie O’Connell.
When you ask a lawyer what he or she has learned working for the state that they missed in law school almost all answer with, “Everything.” This group was no different.
“It was my second or third day and I had a contested hearing for VOP (Violation of Probation),” O’Connell said. “I didn’t even know what a contested hearing for VOP was.”
“I didn’t even know what a VOP was,” said Demming of her start as an assistant public defender.
Don’t worry, they do now.
A Lawyer’s Reality
The lawyer you see on TV and ones practicing here in Pensacola do have something in common. They have to know how to speak.
“You’re forced to become proficient in speaking in front of people,” said Geoff Brodersen of Shell, Fleming, Davis & Menge.
Crime scene equipment isn’t as prevalent as popular shows lead us to believe either.
“Thanks to television shows like ‘CSI,’ juries have high expectations,” Eddins said. “We can’t get fingerprints off of ice cubes. The ‘CSI’ effect is prevalent. The expectation of scientific evidence is unrealistic in a lot of cases.”
One thing that is interesting to find out is that most law schools do not require students to take an internship or participate in a mock trial. When Brodersen graduated from Coastal School of Law he was totally unprepared for what was ahead.
“I didn’t take any trial practice,” Brodersen said. “It was all pretty new to me. In school you learn the theories and attaining the ideal.”
One thing you will learn in law school is how much time you put into your work. Having a life is even more difficult after graduation. Sometimes deciding between your life and the law is not an easy choice to make.
Shelley Reynolds took time off after she had children before jumping back into her law books. Years later, after working there right after law school, she returned to the State Attorney’s Office as a single mother with three kids.
“The hours and schedule didn’t work,” Reynolds said. “As a prosecutor, when you’re assigned to a judge and he is in court, you’re in court.”
Now, Reynolds has her own practice. On the fourth floor of the Blount Building is her small office. There’s a large playpen in the middle of the room. Her secretary just had a little girl and Reynolds insisted she bring her to work so that she would not have to worry about a babysitter. Her dogs, Wall E and Daisy, also share the office. While she is dedicated to every case—she represented clients involved with Operation Anything for a Buck—she attends soccer games, church and keeps her family first.
Reynolds’ supervisor at the State Attorney’s Office was James Owens.
“He let me do the fun stuff,” she said. “As a 25-year-old that looked more like a secretary, I got to handle cases against criminal defenders who had been practicing for 20 years. That’s pretty challenging.”
What can also be challenging is staying cordial with opposing counsel. The state attorney’s and public defender’s office are often seen as rivals. No matter which side a lawyer is on, they must learn that the arguments should end when court is dismissed.
“You should be able to argue with someone and still be able to chat with that person outside the courtroom,” Reynolds said. “You do get passionate—you’re supposed to be very zealous.”
Crystal Spencer sat through a five hour interview—on her birthday—at a private law firm when someone told her that if she wanted trial experience, she needed to go to the State Attorney’s or Public Defender’s office.
Spencer, who is from Kentucky, visited her brother in Pensacola where he went to flight school and thought to herself, “Why am I vacationing here? I need to live here.”
Spencer worked for the State Attorney’s Office for four and a half years. Her father was a lawyer and growing up she always helped in the office, but she began to appreciate how much work the law is when she worked for the state.
“There’s nothing like the experience,” Spencer said of the State Attorney’s Office. “I loved the act of persuasion and the exhilaration of a jury trial.”
While she was at Brandeis School of Law, Spencer’s father died suddenly of a heart attack. One thing he told her before he passed was “Whatever life throws at you, you will get it.” It is this encouragement that should be passed on to all future lawyers.
Life and the Law
You see a lot of children follow their parent’s career paths, sometimes much to their dismay.
“It’s not printable,” said Paul Hamlin, Jr. of his reaction to his son pursuing law school.
Following in Hamlin’s footsteps, his son works for that state as a prosecutor at the State Attorney’s Office.
“It’s a great training ground,” said Hamlin, Jr. “Law school teaches you the academics, not the practical aspects such as which table to sit at or who goes first.
Hamlin worked for Jack Behr at the Public Defender’s Office out of law school. He learned about the law and other valuable life lessons.
“He was a great guy, made me a little less cynical and less inclined to jump to conclusions,” Hamlin said.
Hamlin recalled one case in which a young woman was accused of writing bad checks. Turned out her roommate was writing the checks. Hamlin still practices criminal law – with Galloway, Johnson, Tompkins, Burr and Smith.
What law school doesn’t prepare you for, life experiences will. Maureen Duignan of Shell, Fleming, Davis & Menge took a trip around the country before she decided which state she wanted to take the bar exam in. She picked Florida eventually.
“I bought a pickup truck with my sister,” Duignan said. “I wanted to see the Grand Canyon. We left from New York, towards the arch in St. Louis. We drove up to Seattle, then down to San Diego and all the way to Key West. We stopped to view many sights in between.”
“Student Loans were knocking on my door,” said Duignan, who graduated from Albany Law School. And with that she looked for a job. At the time, she was living in New Orleans, but was staying in a tent in Fort Pickens. Even in the 1980s, Duignan said there were more law grads than jobs. Right before Halloween she got hired at the Public Defender’s Office where she worked for five years.
“I loved it,” Duignan said. “Criminal law is my first love. It’s interesting. Family law cases go on and on. Almost all criminal cases are over in six months or less.”
Growing up in New York didn’t leave Duignan jaded. She was still shocked at the cases that came through the Public Defender’s Office.
“As an assistant public defender, whatever case you’re assigned to you have to take,” Duignan said. “Sex offender cases were tough.”
On top of all the normal concerns lawyers have with their first trial case, Duignan was cautious not to let her thick New York accent pop up.
“When I had my first trial case in Milton, I was scared to death they were going to convict my client because of my accent,” Duignan said. “I made sure to throw a few ‘y’alls’ in there.”
“A Good Place to Start”
David McGee interned for the State Attorney’s Office while at Florida State University College of Law. Right after graduation he worked for the U.S. Attorney’s Office, serving the northern district of Florida for 17 years. He worked on high profile cases such as the murders of Paul Hill, the first person in the United States to be executed for murdering a doctor who performed abortions. Just recently, a 20-year-old case McGee had worked on made news when a 61-year-old woman applied for a state I.D. using her real name. She is suspected of being the ringleader in a $200 million drug operation.
McGee practices with Beggs & Lane and even after years of headline grabbing cases, he still gets nervous.
“It’s never not scary,” McGee said. “All good trial lawyers still get nervous. You’re managing so much.”
He credits the State Attorney’s Office as “a good place to start.”
“If they paid a little more it’d be a good place to finish,” McGee said.
What law school didn’t prepare McGee for was the warp speed pace the State Attorney’s Office provides.
“The cases just come flying at you,” he said. “And the pace at which you have to make decisions leaves you waking up in a cold sweat. It’s survival of the fittest.”
For Eddins, those decisions can be hard because you can see both sides to the story. Being objective is also hard when a case becomes personal.
“You’re constantly struggling with ‘What is the right thing?’” Eddins said. “As you mature you become more and more objective. I was personally involved in the Billings case—that was hard, but it’s our job.”
“Cases involving children—those tough cases that keep you up at night—you do become very aware of the victim,” Spencer said. “We can’t allow emotions to cloud our judgment.”
So if lawyers learn the law out of law school, what can future law school students do to make the most out of their academics?
First, think about your undergrad degree.
“I majored in political science and people asked me, ‘What if you don’t get into law school?” Reynolds said. “It would’ve been hard had I not been able to go to law school.”
Once you’re in law school, make sure to take advantage of every learning experience.
“Get every internship on the planet,” said Assistant Public Defender Kim Martin.
And before you rack up student loans, be sure it’s what you really want.
“Go spend time at the Public Defender’s or State Attorney’s office,” said O’Connell.
As with most college graduates, landing a job is an obstacle. Sometimes it’s better to gain experience than a paycheck.
“If you can’t find a job, volunteer or intern and get experience under your belt,” Reynolds said. “In this economy you have to consider the option.”
“The economy is not that great for legal jobs,” Brodersen said. “Every year the amount of people sitting for the bar has increased.”
Even after law school, the bar exam and earning a small amount of money working on a large amount of cases for the state you never stop studying the law. For McGee, constant knowledge is a must.
“If you ever stop learning, there’s something wrong with you,” he said.