VOL. 122 | NO. 232 | Thursday, December 06, 2007
Memphis Law Talk
Finding Justice for Clients Provides Satisfaction for Bell
Name: David Bell
Firm: Shelby County Public Defender's Office
Basics: Bell, who has been with the defender's office for four years, has established a program to help educate teenage drivers.
"I am just proud of helping those in need, giving them a voice and an ally in their fight for justice. Helping the poor means payment in your soul."
- David Bell
David Bell has been an attorney in the Shelby County Public Defender's Office for four years. In addition to defending people who can't afford to hire an attorney, Bell has helped the youth of the community with the outreach program "To Keep Your License, Know the Law."
Bell spearheaded the program to help educate teenage
drivers about things they need to do not only to get their driver's licenses, but keep them. The program is offered through the Memphis City Schools.
Attorneys volunteer to spend one afternoon a semester talking to students about things such as paying traffic fines, driving under the influence offenses and leaving the scene of an accident.
Bell has been honored for his work, being named one of Shelby County Government's "Outstanding Performers" for the 2004-2005 fiscal year.
Q: Why did you choose law as a profession?
A: I like helping people, being their representative, being the face that they show the public and the government. I love the law - not only that we as a society have constructed a code by which to live, but that there is a struggle for us as human beings to understand those laws and live by them. That struggle is what I love.
Q: Why did you choose to work in the public defender's office?
A: I enjoy litigation, and there is arguably no place better suited for an education in courtroom litigation than the public defender's office. Additionally, I like the mission involved with working for the Shelby County Public Defender - helping people that cannot afford to hire an attorney, working for justice when there is little to be found, standing in the shoes of the downtrodden and helping their voice to be heard.
Q: What is the best part of your job?
A: Winning serious felony jury trials in criminal court. There is nothing quite as thrilling as putting countless hours of preparation into a case, fighting tooth and nail for your client before a judge and jury, and then having the judge say, "Not guilty." I guarantee you that there is no drug that can compare with that. Turning around and looking into the face of your client, who has usually been sitting in jail at least a year, maybe two or more, seeing his or her tears, and knowing that you have helped set that person free.
Q: What are some obstacles you have faced in your career?
A: I think the main obstacle I have faced in my career has been patience, or lack thereof - when you first graduate from law school, you don't immediately start trying death penalty cases, and you want to.
That's the law, and it is good that the law is written that way because a brand-new lawyer is not ready for that. I am ambitious and competitive and want to advance as quickly as possible, but I have had to learn patience, because a client is not well-served by an attorney who is bold in their willingness to handle challenges yet
lacking in their knowledge of law and procedure.
Q: Where did you attend undergraduate and law school?
A: I received my bachelor of arts degree from Earlham College in Richmond, Ind. I received my doctorate of jurisprudence from the University of Memphis Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law.
Q: If you had not chosen law as a profession, what do you think you'd be doing now?
A: That is an excellent question, and one I do not know the answer to. I heavily considered going to seminary after college, and I like the idea of being a minister. I am just not sure it would be the best use of my talents and skill set.
Q: What have been some of the highlights of working in the public defender's office?
A: Certainly, the trials I have handled. Of course, some of the best representation I have provided for people never resulted in a trial at all - it meant avoiding a trial, working out a reasonable settlement, and sometimes helping a person get treatment for their substance abuse or mental health problems. I also started the "To Keep Your License, Know the Law" outreach program with Memphis City Schools, and that has gone very well. I feel like the kids are really getting an education on the pitfalls of committing crimes in a vehicle and hopefully are learning to be more responsible.
Additionally, I generate a publication from our office every week that provides job listings and opportunities in the Greater Memphis area. We as public defenders distribute the list to our clients, and I supply the list to judges, probation officers, police officers, career centers and other members of the community to try and help the unemployed secure a job. There is nothing quite like helping a person find a job - there is a renewed sense of hope, there is a sense of pride, and the desperation that pervaded their life melts away.
Q: Where are you from?
A: I am from Shelby County. I have lived in Whitehaven, Germantown and the city of Memphis. I graduated from White Station High School, class of 1994.
Q: What has been your biggest challenge, whether personally or professionally?
A: Personally, I sometimes feel that I work too much, that I need to spend more time with my family. When I have a big case I am working on that requires that I devote long hours to its resolution, I certainly miss my family. But that's part of the job.
Professionally, I think the biggest challenge has been knowing that you have a good case that you could possibly win at trial, and having your client agree to plead guilty to a great deal just to get out of jail and not take the chance of more time. It is frustrating. Your client might be pleading guilty to a felony, which will be on his record forever and affect his rights, but all he can think about is walking out of that jailhouse door. How do you tell that person to sit in jail for another five months waiting for trial just so he can possibly keep his record clean? Sometimes it breaks your heart.
Q: What do you do in your free time?
A: We are members of Idlewild Presbyterian Church and are blessed to be involved in that community. I am a big fan of Memphis Tiger basketball. My father-in-law and I are season-ticket holders. I volunteer both in community service organizations and for political campaigns. I enjoy playing soccer for a men's league team and playing music with my friends.
Q: What are you most proud of, personally and professionally?
A: Personally, that's easy - my family. My wonderful wife, Joann, and my beautiful 7-month-old daughter, Georgia. It's not even close.
Professionally, I think I am just proud of helping those in need, giving them a voice and an ally in their fight for justice. Helping the poor means payment in your soul.