The Public Defender

The Sun – August 14, 2011

“My name is Bob Phillips and I have been a criminal defense lawyer here in Georgetown, Texas since 1987. I started as a prosecutor back in Dallas in 1980 working for the legendary Henry Wade, who was the incumbent DA in Dallas for 35 years.”

“I came down here in 1985 with my wife and two children because we wanted to live in a small town environment, small town community. I took a job with the DA’s office in Williamson County and was a chief felony prosecutor for two years and then went into private practice in 1987.”

“I kind of fell into being a lawyer by accident. I had graduated from the University of Dallas in 1976 with a history degree and all I ever wanted to be was a newspaper reporter. I was determined I was either going to be the next great sports writer or the next sportscaster.”

“My dad talked me into going to law school in case journalism didn’t work out. Three years later I get my law degree from the University of Texas in 1979, I don’t even apply to law firms, I apply only to newspapers.”

“I got a job with the Dallas Times Herald, which was at that time the afternoon newspaper in Dallas. I was working the police beat and interviewing quite a few prosecuting attorneys at the Dallas County DA’s office. That was the only area of the law that fascinated me at law school, and so after a while I decided I would apply for a job there. They were very skeptical about me at first because they thought maybe I was on some undercover journalism assignment, but I convinced them I was genuine and they hired me. I spent five wonderful years at that DA’s office and I’ve been a criminal lawyer since 1980…32 years.”

“As a criminal defense lawyer, I represent individuals accused of criminal behavior, everything from a misdemeanor DWI all the way up to capital murder: I handle cases in federal court, everything from white collar to street drug crimes.”

“For seven years I prosecuted these cases in two different DA’s offices, Dallas and Williamson County, and over the years I have tried over 250 jury trials and handled probably over 5,000 of various kinds to their disposition. Essentially I represent individuals who are being accused of doing something criminal and I help them get through their ordeal by either entering a plea bargain with the state, getting their charges dismissed or trying the case to a judge or jury.”

“There is a lot of pressure because you literally have the lives and futures of the people that you’re representing in your hands and admittedly in many cases the conduct of the individual is what put them in the position they’re in. You don’t, as a lawyer, bear responsibility for their conduct, but at the same time what happens next for them, the future, is largely up to what your talent and experience and resourcefulness can obtain for them.”

“There are a number of challenges to being a defense lawyer especially in Williamson County. Williamson County is a very accurately known as a tough-on-crime county and the judges and jurors are conservative and very pro-law enforcement. So representing the defendant in a criminal case is a challenge in itself because, even though the jury is instructed to presume the defendant innocent and not to convict unless they’re convinced beyond a reasonable doubt, it’s not always easy to persuade jurors to follow their oath.”

“I have had a very satisfying and rewarding career doing that and I have had my share of success doing that, but it’s very challenging.”

“Sometimes people ask me, how can you stand representing people accused of crimes knowing that they have done something wrong? When I was a prosecutor I never thought I would be able to do it with a clear conscience but really it has been my Christian faith that has enabled me to do it. If you look carefully at the American justice system, it is rooted in Judeo Christian principles, especially the notion that all of us are sinful, flawed people. That is why we make our juries reach a unanimous verdict; we don’t want to have any mistakes made by well-meaning but flawed jurors. We allow defendants to cross-examine witnesses because we don’t want people wrongfully convicted.”

“I practice law honorably,  honestly and I play by the rules. I’m aggressive and relentless in my pursuit of victory, but I don’t cheat to win. So as long as I’m doing that and I’m consistent with my calling as a Christian, my conscious is clear because the system itself is the fairest, most just, most honest system that there is on the earth.”

“Within that system and the rules that are provided in it, both sides have a say in the case and so the verdict by the jury or the judge is as close to true justice as this life can provide. My role in it, whether I’m a prosecutor or a defense lawyer, is an honorable role that I have really enjoyed. I enjoy being a criminal defense lawyer for the same reason I enjoyed being a newspaper reporter – I love telling the human story. I love the gritty, human drama that every trial really is – and I love the competition.”

By Bob Phillips as told to Brianne Tolj. Story has been edited for organization and condensed for space.

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