The Role of Specialized Practice Groups in a Public Law Firm

Wis State Public Defender TorchThe Wisconsin State Public Defender (SPD) has dual responsibilities: we are a large law firm and a state agency. Although there is overlap, each function has its own set of expectations and stakeholders, and we strive to achieve harmony between both roles. In this blog post, I am going to discuss an area where we achieve congruence by developing specialty practice groups.

From the beginning of the SPD, we organized ourselves based on specializing in appellate and trial work. The agency continues to maintain both of these general areas of practice, and we have identified additional specific practice areas: juvenile, forensics, termination of parental rights, racial disparity, immigration, and sexually violent persons (Ch. 980).

The SPD benefits in several ways. From a state agency perspective, specialty practice groups allow us to share specialized knowledge and expertise efficiently, lessening the need for staff and private attorneys to “reinvent the wheel” in these complex practice areas. From a law firm perspective, specialization allows us to enhance the quality of legal representation provided to our clients statewide.

Each practice group is led by a coordinator. That person stays abreast of the latest developments in the practice area and shares this expertise as an advisor, mentor, and educator to other SPD practitioners. Coordinators serve as a clearinghouse of sorts as they assist others in quickly changing areas of legal practice. Staff contact them as needed when they are preparing a client’s case or have a question in a new or undeveloped area of the law.

Each coordinator pulls together practice materials, including motions, briefs, transcripts, case outlines, and research/articles/studies to share with practitioners. Coordinators keep track of the legal nuances and mundane details in their practice areas and catalog them for easy dissemination to attorneys when requested. They assist with the agency’s training efforts, including presenting at the annual conference. Some coordinators conduct or assist with expert examinations at motion hearings and trials. The coordinators also assist private bar attorneys with their questions related to the respective practice areas.

Cases involving clients charged as a sexually violent persons typically involve a number of very intricate and arcane actuarial statistics. A practitioner who only occasionally takes such cases would find it challenging to build the expertise needed to work with statistics. In this example, the Ch. 980 practice group assists the attorneys with training in these math and statistical elements. Similarly, the forensics coordinator helps others with the technical aspects of this practice area. In fact, as I write this post, the coordinator for our forensics practice group is assisting in a jury trial by focusing on the forensic elements of the case.

As the agency continues to utilize such specialties, we will, as necessary, change and adapt to the ever-evolving and changing field of criminal justice in Wisconsin.

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