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Late to the law, three stress their life experiences as preparation for office.

Attorneys vying for a judgeship typically tout their years of legal experience. But the three candidates competing for an opening on the 5th Judicial Circuit bench are talking about their life experiences.

All three - Sandy Hawkins of Belleview, Michael Lamberti of Spring Hill and Denise Lyn of Inverness - came to law later in life.

In Hawkins' case, she was 42 when she graduated from law school in 1997. The other two were admitted to the Florida Bar about the same time; Lamberti was 38, and Lyn was 31.

"We are all qualified," Hawkins said. "So the makeup of the candidates" is important.

One of them will replace retiring Circuit Judge Barbara Gurrola of Citrus County, who was elected in 1996.

Gurrola's successor would likely assume her mixed docket of family, juvenile and other civil cases in Citrus, though judicial assignments are not finalized until after the election.

Sandy Hawkins

Hawkins, 53, entered the race with the most campaign experience after narrowly losing a judicial election in 2006 to an opponent who grossly outspent her. She finished with 49 percent of the vote.

She attributes her near-success to how voters reacted to her life story.

She describes herself as a daughter of a sugar cane farmer who raised six boys, starting when she was 17. She attended the police academy, but another pregnancy kept her from taking law enforcement jobs. She worked two jobs as a single mom to put herself through the University of Florida and then Stetson College of Law in St. Petersburg.

Hawkins said she brings to the bench "maturity, wisdom and knowledge gained in 53 years of life experience."

"That's a lot of years of struggling," she added. "It's a humbling experience to stand in a food stamp line - something I didn't want to do but had to do to keep my family together."

After law school, she joined the State Attorney's Office in Ocala as a prosecutor, handling domestic violence cases in criminal and civil court before moving to the felony criminal docket before Judge Hale Stancil.

She most admires judges who are harsh when they need to be harsh but also those who are sympathetic and look for mitigation opportunities.

Hawkins said her relative lack of experience in civil matters doesn't deter her.

"It's how hardworking you are and how up on the law you are and how prepared you are" that matters, she said.

As with her last campaign, she is paying the bulk of the expenses, loaning herself $10,000 and taking a few weeks off work to talk to voters.

Michael Lamberti

Like Hawkins, Lamberti brings years of experience as a state prosecutor, including three years as a division supervisor in Sumter County.

At campaign events, Lamberti calls himself a "career public servant." He wants to continue his service by "moving to the next level, and that next level is being a judge."

Lamberti, 48, began his service at the New York State Insurance Fund, where he served as a hearing representative for the fund in workers' compensation cases for 11 years.

He finished as a senior representative handling the most complicated cases and counts his time in his "20 years of legal experience" because he prepared cases before an administrative law judge. But his opponents are quick to note that he was not a lawyer during that time.

A permanently disabling back injury and encouragement from judges prompted him to eventually attend law school at Touro College in Huntington, N.Y., at night while working for the state.

From his back injury, Lamberti said he saw the legal system from the other side. "It made me understand what a victim is," he said. "It made me understand the difficulties in what's called due process."

After law school, Lamberti and his wife moved to Spring Hill to be closer to family, and he joined the State Attorney's Office. He left the Brooksville office in May to spend time campaigning and now works part time in private practice with local attorney Mark Rodriquez. He also served for a brief time as a legal adviser to the Florida Department of Children and Families, handling child welfare cases.

His campaign is supported financially by the Hogan Law Firm and Mary Scaglione, the wife of Hernando County Judge Don Scaglione.

Denise Lyn

Lyn came to the legal profession after stints in the military and the real estate business.

She enlisted in the Air Force in 1985 to help pay for college, fixing planes for six years. She finished her tenure at Hurlburt Field in the Florida Panhandle, attended college and began selling real estate in Navarre.

The spark that ignited her desire to become a judge came at an unlikely time.

She and her husband were divorced in her early 20s, and the judge on the case left an impression.

"I just looked up to him and had great respect for him," she explained.

"And I believe that experience told me that that's what I wanted to do in my future."

Lyn, 41, received a law degree from the University of Florida and then a mentor, Clark Stillwell, helped bring her to Inverness, where she joined the firm of Brannen, Stillwell and Perrin.

She opened her own office in 2001 and handles a general civil practice that involves everything from family law to land use regulations. One of her specialities is governmental law. She works on contract for the property appraiser and mosquito control board in Citrus County, among other public entities. In 2004, Lyn was elected as the 5th Circuit's representative on the Florida Bar's 52-member governing body.

"I have taken very decisive steps throughout my legal career to give myself a diverse broad-based legal background so that someday I could assume the role of judge," she said.

Unlike her opponents, she has no experience in criminal law, but she feels that's an advantage that sets her apart because this judge would likely handle a civil docket that plays to her strengths.

"I have a complete understanding of how the courtroom operates," she said. "I have handled just a large gamut of matters."

Lyn is putting the most muscle into the race, loaning her campaign $47,000 of the $63,000 she raised through the end of July. Her campaign has been endorsed by the Florida Police Benevolent Association and the Florida Professional Firefighters Association.

John Frank can be reached at or (352) 754-6114.