For assistant federal defender David Bell, the urge to be a lawyer was precipitated by the urge to help people.
“I always thought I wanted to do something where I could help other people, certainly people less fortunate than me, and I decided on law,” Bell said. “I knew that whatever I did with a law degree I would be able to help people and … I realized that whether I loved the law or whether I didn’t love the law, I could make a living doing it as well.”
As it turns out, Bell loved the law since his first days at the University of Memphis Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law. Before becoming a student there, though, he graduated from White Station High School and studied politics, legal studies and religion at Earlham College, a small, liberal arts school in Richmond, Ind.
A spiritual man who has served as deacon for Idlewild Presbyterian Church, Bell considered the seminary before deciding on law school where, as a student, he met Robert Jones, the Shelby County chief public defender at the time.
“He asked me to come over there and interview with them for a summer clerkship,” Bell said. “I liked their office and I liked the idea of the mission of what they did there, so I went over there and I clerked that first summer after my first year in law school and I just kind of fell in love with the place and the people there.”
That mission, Bell says, is to help the indigent who are seeking justice. Problems in society such as lack of education and substance abuse, he said, all tie back into the issue of poverty.
“When you have an agency that is charged with assisting people who are impoverished who need help seeking justice, it’s a really neat mission to try and fulfill and to try and achieve justice for those people,” Bell said.
He also wanted to be a trial lawyer and not simply sit at a desk in an office, and he knew that working with the Shelby County’s Office of the Public Defender was a fast track to the courtroom and the experience it offered.
Upon graduating from law school in 2003, Bell accepted a job with that office where he worked in drug court and in General Sessions Court on misdemeanors and felonies. He was also sent to the outlying courts in Bartlett, Germantown, Collierville and Millington.
“I liked meeting the judges and prosecutors and other attorneys out there, and seeing different systems of justice and the way they work,” Bell said.
He moved up quickly, however, into criminal court where he handled felony jury trials from theft of property cases to felony murder cases, including one that began on the A&E police documentary series “The First 48.”
After five years with that office, Stephen Shankman, then-chief defender with the federal Public Defender’s office, offered him a job. There was a learning curve and the work he did in state law was far different than that in federal law where “the penalties are much graver … you’re looking at a lot more time usually, and you’re looking at people in situations that are even that much more desperate.”
Even so, he brought with him lessons learned with the county and, specifically, from mentor Jack Hough.
“He told me, ‘Your primary responsibility is to your client, but you have to uphold your ethical standards and you have to do things by the book,’ and I always took that to heart,” Bell said.
The cases he handles now range from police officers charged with a crime to white-collar crimes involving tax fraud and counterfeiting, cases that require an enormous amount of paperwork to be read.
“I’ve learned a great deal about how to absorb that information and analyze it and really thrive on understanding the tax codes now and those statutes,” Bell said.
One of the first clients he represented was Paul Schlesselman who, together with Daniel Cowart, was charged with threatening the life of then-presidential nominee Barack Obama.
Bell’s work has him arguing cases in Jackson, Tenn., and in front of the U.S Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit in Cincinnati, and he is an adjunct professor for his alma mater teaching legal methods.
“I get to do a lot of work that I’m really interested and really involved in and is intellectually stimulating while also maintaining that mission of helping people at the same time,” he said. “That balance is really a beautiful thing to find as a lawyer who’s been on the job for about 10 years now.”