Saturday, November 25, 2017
Business

Public Defender's Office employees: overworked, underpaid ... and happy

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Lawyers, legal assistants and investigators at the Pinellas-Pasco Public Defender's Office routinely deal with the worst kinds of criminals — murderers, child abusers, drug traffickers.

They haven't had a raise in six years; some even take second jobs to make ends meet.

They work in a high-stress, high-stakes arena where their performance sometimes means the difference between life and the death penalty.

And plenty of them love it.

"I'm a lifer," said Assistant Public Defender Jane Matheny. "I love my job and I don't have any desire to go anywhere."

"To be perfectly honest, I think the pay is my only complaint," said Jessica Manuele, an assistant public defender since 2007. "I do think that we're helping a lot of people."

The Pinellas-Pasco Public Defender's Office made its debut this year on the Times' Top 100 Workplaces, coming it at No. 28 in the midsize category.

With no room in the $16.4 million annual budget for raises, how does the elected public defender for the two counties, Bob Dillinger, keep up morale?

Several employees say Dillinger instills a sense of purpose by stressing the need to protect the accused who have no one else to help them. By definition, none of their clients can afford legal representation.

He also knows that little things matter. Instead of adopting a generic and forgettable name for the office website, Dillinger settled on wearethehope.org. The "we are the hope" line came from a speech he gave after taking over as public defender.

"There are no lobbyists for poor people," Dillinger explained recently. "And people who have been charged with crimes, most people think they're guilty. Our job is to make sure their rights are protected."

Of course, some of those clients are guilty. But another part of the job is ensuring that every defendant gets a vigorous defense.

"I may not like this particular client, but the job is to protect that client's rights. And by protecting the client's rights, we protect everyone's rights," Dillinger said.

"We defend the Constitution every day. That means a lot to us."

Many young lawyers start out working as public defenders and prosecutors to gain valuable trial experience.

But in some places, it's a sink-or-swim approach, said Edward Abare, who worked in other public defender offices in Florida and Massachusetts before coming to the Pinellas-Pasco office. Here, he said, experienced attorneys make a real effort to train newer ones. The office has more than 100 attorneys, 12 of them board-certified and 10 qualified to handle death penalty cases.

"Even as an intern I felt like I could walk into the No. 2 or 3 in command and ask simple questions about a misdemeanor case," Manuele said. "There's always somebody to ask."

It's understood that many assistant public defenders will leave for more money and different opportunities. But even those who exit often have good things to say.

"The camaraderie in that office is just really amazing," said criminal defense attorney Jonathan Saunders, who left in 2011 after about six years.

Manuele said she gets a feeling of fulfillment from helping clients. If she's dealing with an alcoholic client who keeps getting arrested for petty theft, she'll look for a deeper solution than a simple plea bargain. She's likely to say, "Every single time this happens, you're drunk. We need to address this issue." And then look for treatment options.

Even employees who don't often go into courtrooms can watch their colleagues on the Pinellas Criminal Justice Center closed-circuit television system. They can see the lawyers in action, sometimes benefiting from research or support that they helped with.

"We're all in there with the same common purpose," said Anne Vance, a legal assistant who has been in the office for 29 years.

Sometimes people will ask her how she can work in an office that defends people accused of so many serious crimes. She just tells them, "Everyone deserves their day in court."

And she enjoys her part in it.

"There's so much energy in that office and so many really, really, smart, enjoyable people. How could you not like that?"

Curtis Krueger can be reached at [email protected] tampabay.com or (727) 893-8232. Follow him on Twitter at @ckruegertimes.

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