NBC’s “Law and Order,” opens with perhaps one of the most well-known lines of any television show: “In the criminal justice system, the people are represented by two separate yet equally important groups: the police, who investigate crime, and the district attorneys, who prosecute the offenders. These are their stories.”
Hmm … but what about the defense? This omission reflects a pervasive good guy/bad guy, white hat/black hat mentality in our country. In theory, a suspect is innocent until proven guilty, but social perceptions seem to be otherwise. In turn, this assumption affects how many perceive the attorneys who defend the accused.
“No one likes the criminal defense attorney until they need one,” observes Reid M. Hart, lead criminal defense attorney at the Law Offices of John M. Phillips. “It’s one of the reasons I chose this course, because of that stigma. Growing up, I knew people who were arrested for minor offenses, and I don’t believe that should define them or ruin their lives.”
DESTINED FOR DEFENSE
Long before he was old enough to give any serious consideration to his future, the adults in young Hart’s life were already convinced, and even quite vocal, about his destiny.
“Growing up it seemed that my parents, teachers, and other adults, were always saying, ‘You’re going to be a lawyer,’” he says. “I’m not sure exactly why. Maybe because I enjoyed watching all the crime and law shows on TV.
“I guess it could also be that I tended to argue with authority figures,” he adds with a smirk. “Don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t arguing just for the sake of arguing; I just felt compelled to plead my side, whether it was talking in class or something at home I didn’t agree with. I just wanted to make my point, and if their point was more valid than mine, well that’s fair.”
By the time he reached high school, Hart had been hearing those seemingly prophetic words for so long that he decided to take them to heart when considering his career options moving forward.
“I majored in political science with a minor in philosophy in college,” he says, “and I just figured law was the path I would travel unless I realized there was something else I wanted to do. It did seem like a good fit, and I enjoyed my classes.”
Completing his undergraduate studies solidified this decision, and by the time he entered Stetson University College of Law, in Gulfport, Florida, his interest had become a full-blown passion. So much so, that he graduated cum laude and was hired by McDermott Law Firm P.A., just a couple of months after passing the bar.
“I had interned at the firm the summer between my second and third years of law school,” Hart says. “Frank McDermott was a great mentor. He’s an excellent, board certified criminal trial lawyer, and he really showed me the ropes. I couldn’t have hoped for a better experience. Frank pretty much took me under his wing, and even allowed me to take the reins on cases so I could learn through experience, which is the best way to do it. Learning from him, I believe, helped me become the lawyer I am today.”
Hart says the most valuable lessons he learned from McDermott was to practice law the right way, value his reputation and be true to his core values.
“He told me that there are always going to be those who don’t necessarily play by the rules,” says Hart. “Frank reminded me to consistently do things the right way, regardless. I took that advice to heart, and to this day, as different circumstances arise, I remember his words.
“There will always be those who’ll say or do whatever they can just to sign up a new client or win a case, but that involves a lack of integrity that would never let me sleep at night,” he adds. “That’s not the reason we’re here. We’re here to help people, and be genuine and honest while doing it. It might not always be the best news, but you have to let your client know what to expect as they go through that very important time so they can at least have realistic expectations.”
Hart’s sense of duty extends well beyond that of his client. He understands that a criminal charge impacts an individual’s entire circle of friends and family, as well as other important aspects of his or her life.
“It’s not just the individual who’s being charged with the crime,” he says, “it’s their family, their children, their employment. Just one person being accused of something affects so many people. I think many times that’s lost in the overall scheme of things.
“Despite our Constitution, which presumes innocence until proven guilty, that’s not how things operate in the real world,” adds Hart. “It’s why so many people think poorly of criminal defense attorneys. Even some of my close friends have asked, ‘How can you represent guilty people?’ But really, you’re just helping people through what is likely one of the worst times of their life. They’re suddenly immersed in a world they know nothing about, and they are often scared knowing the state of Florida has unlimited resources to prosecute them. To say it’s stressful is a huge understatement.”
NO PLACE LIKE HOME
Hart was with McDermott Law Firm P.A., for about three years before spreading his wings and joining the Todd Foster Law Group in Tampa. Despite all the experience he was accruing, his goal was to ultimately return to his hometown of Jacksonville.
“I had sent out a few resumes,” he says, “but really had no prospects. As luck would have it, John Phillips was having his firm’s annual holiday party and my uncle, who happened to live next door to their office, saw the flyers and decided to attend. He knew I was looking for a criminal defense position in Jacksonville, and he overheard John say that the firm was planning to start taking criminal defense cases, but they needed a lawyer to handle them. So, my uncle mentioned me, and asked if I could send over my resume.”
A few days later, when Hart returned home for Christmas, he was asked to interview. The stars must have been perfectly aligned because the wheels moved quickly. By January 2014, Hart was settled into his new position with John Phillips, serving as lead criminal defense attorney.
“It worked out perfectly,” says Hart. “I was back home where I wanted to be, which made my parents very happy, but more importantly I was working with an amazing team, and offered an incredible opportunity to help establish and grow a criminal defense practice at a firm that was clearly on the rise.”
PERSONAL PERSPECTIVE/ PUBLIC PERCEPTION
From the beginning of his career, Hart has been cognizant of the people he represents, their lives, families, jobs, and who they really are as individuals. Known for this personal approach to the practice of law, Hart begins each case by establishing a relationship with his client and building a mutual trust. He’s particularly sensitive to the additional pain that the onus of being criminally charged brings to not only his client, but their entire family.
“Really getting to know each client and establishing a relationship allows us to understand their story and what they are going through,” he says. “In addition to the legal issues involved in every case, the ability to present your client as an individual sets their case apart and allows prosecutors to see the whole picture, rather than making a decision based solely on how that person is presented in a police report.”
Hart is frequently characterized by friends and colleagues as passionate, a fact he does not deny.
“As you meet people and get to know your clients, you realize they are mostly just regular folks. They’re college students, business owners, restaurant workers,” Hart says. “It’s not one certain sector of society, so you realize you’re helping a lot of good people to maintain their lives and pursue their dreams. So yes, I am passionate. My job is not only to represent them, but to help them not be defined by that one moment if at all possible. It’s so easy for people to adopt that self-defeating attitude when they’re facing an uphill battle and feeling like the world is against them.”
Despite an all too real cloud of censure often hanging over a criminal defense lawyer, Hart says he loves his work and finds tremendous satisfaction.
“There’s nothing quite so rewarding as helping people get a second chance, and allowing them to get back to their lives,” he says. “It’s a privilege to help them navigate a system they usually know little about. Our Constitution guarantees us certain rights, and I’m proud to do my part.”