By Jan Pudlow
When Bob Wesley answered his door bell to let in the termite inspector, the young woman greeted him with, “You’re the public defender.”
“How do you know that?” Wesley asked.
“Because I’m a lawyer.”
“So what are you doing working for Terminix? Come see me tomorrow.”
Ninth Circuit Public Defender Bob Wesley likes to tell that story about how he came to hire Darlene Rollins, a 2009 Florida A&M College of Law grad, who is an assistant public defender in Osceola County.
He’s proud to say Rollins recently became Florida Bar board certified in criminal trial law, joining an elite network of specialists. Just 7 percent of eligible Florida Bar members are certified in 26 practice areas approved for certification by the Florida Supreme Court.
Rollins is among the latest crop of six board certified attorneys in Wesley’s shop that currently boasts 25 board certified attorneys out of 135, in either criminal trial or criminal appellate.
Go to the Ninth Circuit PD’s website — http://www.myfloridapd.com — and each board certified attorney’s photo is festooned with The Florida Bar board certified logo. Since Wesley led the way and took the board certification exam himself in 2002, he said, “We’ve created over 70 board certified lawyers.”
Certification provides portable bona fides that assistant public defenders take with them when many of them inevitably go into private practice after the high turnover job at the public defender’s office.
For now, Wesley said, certification is helping to change the stereotypes about public defenders.
What is that stereotype?
Wesley answered: “Don’t care. Modestly qualified. Can’t do much. Looking to avoid work. Not able to try a case, wants to work everything out. Not a real lawyer.”
But after going through the board certification process, there’s bragging rights. The minimum standards for criminal trial law certification, provided in Rule 6-8.3, include:
• Practice of law for at least five years;
• Substantial involvement in the specialty of criminal trial law — 30 percent or more during the three years immediately preceding application;
• Handling of at least 25 contested criminal cases, with 20 jury trials, tried to a verdict, 15 of which involved a felony, and 10 as lead counsel;
• 45 hours of approved criminal trial law certification continuing legal education in the three years immediately preceding application;
• Peer review; and
• A written examination.
“I feel incredibly accomplished, and I think studying for board certification made me a better attorney,” Rollins said. “But most importantly, I think this gives clients confidence in my ability to represent them in court.”
It also gives Wesley justification for pay raises in one of the more modestly paying legal jobs.
“It’s the only way to crack $65,000,” Wesley said. “I back it up with training and pay the test and application fee.”
The initial application fee is $250, then there’s an annual fee of $150, until the fifth year when there’s a $250 recertification fee.
“This is hard work. If you do it for three or four or five years, it will bear on you,” Wesley said. “It’s rewarding professionally and emotionally and you might not be able to own a car.”
Because the pay is low, Wesley said, “We are not likely to hire anyone but brand new lawyers. We are professionally among the lowest funded. We can afford to hire new graduates, and we’ve learned to love turnover because we stay in budget. We are always training. And for those who want to stay, I say, ‘Come, let us grow old together. And if you think you have a mastery of being a criminal trial lawyer, have the guts to sit down and prove it.’”
Not that it’s easy.
“I thought I was going to cry when I walked out of that exam, so I am thrilled to be board certified,” said Assistant Public Defender Crystal Broadway. “But what makes me really happy is the encouragement and support we got from Public Defender Bob Wesley. His attitude is if we’re going to be here, then we need to take that next step and be the best we can be. He wants us to excel and provide the best representation for the community that we serve.”
Because of Hurricane Irma, the October 31 deadline for all certification applications has been extended until November 30. For more information, go to FloridaBar.org/certification.