DADE CITY — As a young lawyer navigating the criminal court system, Steve Herman never had a mentor to show him the way.
He found it on his own, developing an approach to practicing law rooted in meticulous preparation and always keeping an open mind.
Now, after working in the field for 30 years — the last six as a public defender — Herman is being honored with the Richard T. Earle Jr. Professionalism Award from the Barney Masterson Inn of Court.
A mouthful, yes. The award is voted on by all of the county and circuit judges in Pasco and Pinellas counties, and it recognizes the lawyer "who demonstrates the highest degree of professionalism in the practice of law."
Inns of Court are legal societies modeled after Britain's system that seek to raise the level of professionalism in the court system.
Past winners of the professionalism award include some of the biggest names in criminal and family law — top prosecutors and high-dollar private defense attorneys.
In that light, here's something worth noting: Before Herman, no one from Pasco County, and no public defender, had ever won the prestigious award.
"He is always going to bat. I've never seen him let a client down," said Circuit Judge Pat Siracusa, who sits on the criminal bench in east Pasco. He nominated Herman for the award.
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Herman, 54, grew up in Miami and went to college at the University of South Florida, where he started off majoring in pre-med. A semester of organic chemistry pushed him to change course. After attending law school at Stetson University, he worked for a few years in Brevard County, getting a taste of all different types of law. Marriage brought him to Pasco County.
He joined another attorney briefly before striking out on his own, first setting up shop in a strip plaza on U.S. 301 in Zephyrhills. Then he and his then-wife seized on an old building downtown, the two-story, yellow H.B. Jeffries house on Fifth Avenue. They rehabilitated it into a historic focal point and ran ads for Herman's attorney services with his picture.
He had a "new lawyer in town" distinction and limited competition for business in still-rural east Pasco. His business got a jump start with a quick succession of high-profile criminal cases.
Herman represented a man named Bruce Demo who was accused of killing a friend and burying him in Ridge Manor. Herman won a lesser conviction, but Demo's dirty past still earned him a life sentence.
"A partial victory," Herman calls it.
In another case, he defended a Lacoochee teen accused of beating and robbing a man, then leaving him lying unconscious across railroad tracks where a train struck and killed him.
Herman's client, Kimboy Partain, was convicted only of misdemeanor battery.
After a brief flirtation with retirement in the mountains of Georgia, Herman returned to Pasco, separated from his wife and heard about a job opening at the courthouse. That was in 2003.
The public defender's task suits him, he says, both for the opportunity to help people who have little means and few advocates, and because he has learned to accept that not every client can be wholly satisfied.
"Having an attorney is kind of like being married," he said. Communication and working hard at getting along are the only ways to maintain a happy union.
He emphasizes communication, making sure he's in the office when the weekly calls from the jail come in; that's often the only time his clients can reach him.
"The harder thing," he said, "is convincing your clients that you don't think the way they think you do because you're a public defender."
That's the skepticism that often greets him about the quality of the representation and how much public defenders care.
"I want to beat their expectations," Herman said.
His boss and fellow award nominee, Public Defender Bob Dillinger, said Herman is particularly adept at handling such clients.
"We're dealing with a lot of scared people and people with mental health and substance abuse problems," Dillinger said. "It's difficult. There's a lot of lawyers that simply could not do it."
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Herman remarried about four years ago. His wife, Laura Lucin, is an attorney for the court administration.
They commute to work together from their home in Wesley Chapel.
Herman stands out in the small courthouse for his sleek style of dress and unhurried gait, the gait of a content man.
"He is truly one of the nice guys, and a nice guy who will never finish last," said Pasco County Judge William Sestak, who is also a former public defender.
Herman said he can see himself continuing in his job for years to come. Even with hundreds of cases crossing his desk through the years, he sees each one for its uniqueness.
"If you look at every case the same, you're going to get tired of it," he said.
He stays ahead of schedule, and in doing so defies the reputation that lawyers have for procrastinating.
Last week, Herman had his assistant line up his case files for the week of July 13.
Said Judge Siracusa: "Steve's got work to do."