Upon graduating from the University of Memphis Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law in 2000, Josh Spickler took a fortuitous first step into his legal career with the Shelby County’s Office of Public Defender under A C Wharton Jr.
It was an experience that ignited a passion for the courtroom and public service in the young lawyer.
“I didn’t have grand dreams to be some Atticus Finch kind of guy, but I did, during law school, gravitate toward the courtroom in trial clinics and trial advocacy classes,” Spickler said.
He clerked for the public defender’s office where he said he “just fell in love with the courtroom, with the clients, with the challenge of trying a case against another lawyer and doing it from the hip sometimes and with surprises around every corner.”
But there are experiences to be had in any young man’s life and after a few years he left the public defender to start his own firm, one in which he was able to continue the same sort of work but “was able to get more trial experience a little quicker,” he said.
A law firm, being a small business, demands attentions outside of the courtroom with overhead and marketing, lean months and fat, and once the first of Spickler’s two sons with his wife, Ginger, came along, it was time for a change.
“I kind of panicked because it’s one thing to starve myself … but it was sort of a wake-up call that this month to month and crazy revenue fluctuations is a big risk, it was just a grind,” he said.
Spickler found stability at The Hardison Law Firm PC, where there was still defense work to be done, though that of hospitals, long-term care, nurses and doctors instead of criminal cases.
Spickler took a short break from the legal field as a social media manager for a start-up company before finding his way back to the law.
In 2010, Mark Luttrell was elected mayor of Shelby County and appointed Stephen Bush as chief public defender. Spickler had worked closely with Bush in his early years with the office, so when Bush came to him and asked him to sign on again, it was a sort of homecoming for Spickler.
“Everything that I had loved about law, was the stuff that I had done at the PD’s office and in my own practice, and I hadn’t had that for years; and everything that I loved about doing it, Stephen loves about doing it,” he said. “I couldn’t turn down the opportunity to do what he was going to do.”
Spickler is now director of the nascent Defender’s Resource Network, described as being much like the Jericho Project begun by Bush 10 years ago, a program within the public defender’s office that links people in custody who have serious mental illness and substance abuse disorders with services for those problems outside the system.
While Spickler gets the network, still in its early stages, up and running, a big portion of his time is spent on the team that administers the Jericho Project from the public defender’s side of things in court, at a roundtable with the clinical and legal teams, and in implementing a case management system.
He said he’s working “to build a network of stakeholders that addresses job readiness, access to health care … and bridging the gap.”
In this position, he calls on public and private resources to mitigate recidivism and to see that those who need help get it. He has also taken on the task of social media, bringing the office into the cyberworld of Facebook, Twitter and with a blog, JustCity, as a way to make the work they do more transparent and more of a conversation between the 75 attorneys and the public they serve.
“We’ve gotten away from the idea that we really are servants, we really are working for the people around us … so part of it is showing you what we’re doing and being a little more transparent,” Spickler said. “But when you do that, you also get access to better ideas.”
At last spring’s Ignite Memphis 4, presented by MemphisConnect and LaunchMemphis, Spickler’s presentation on “Justice for a New Generation” won the People’s Choice Award. The presentation was recognized outside of Memphis as well and Spickler was asked to speak at a session of the Community-Oriented Defender Network at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University over the summer.
In the 12 years since passing the bar, Spickler’s involvement with the worlds of public defense, self-employment, the private sector and long-established law firms have given him the experience needed and helped maintain his passion for civic duty and responsibility.
“When we address a problem from a more community-wide perspective and not just a criminal justice perspective,” Spickler said, “we can really reduce recidivism, we can change lives and sometimes we can turn the trajectory of someone’s life by addressing that problem.”