ST. LOUIS — When Lee Lawless began working as a federal public defender, he was one of only three people in an office that primarily handled cases for inmates at the high-security federal prison in Marion, Illinois.
The office he’s leaving after 37 years, in his fourth four-year term as head public defender, now numbers about 50 people.
Lawless was universally praised by court officials and co-workers at a ceremony marking his retirement Friday as a “very, very smart lawyer” and national leader in sentencing issues.
Chief U.S. District Judge Rodney Sippel said Lawless headed an office that was once one of the 10 most underfunded offices in the nation.
“But you never heard Lee complain. There were no excuses, and I don’t think the judges even had a clue how difficult their job was and the lack of resources that they had,” Sippel said.
Lawless is “gruff on the outside” but “incredibly kind and generous,” said Cait Clarke, head of the Defender Services Office in Washington.
Lawless, 72, has witnessed an evolution in the constitutionally required representation of indigent criminal defendants while working with some of the area’s legal giants.
His family moved from the Chicago area to the small city of Oakland, next to Kirkwood, when he was in third grade.
His father was a manufacturer’s representative for furniture companies. His mother worked part time as a bookkeeper.
Lawless attended St. Louis Country Day School, now MICDS, then Denison University in Ohio. He took the Law School Admission Test as a senior but didn’t apply right away.
Instead, he moved to Soulard with a longtime friend.
The city was in the process of tearing down buildings in the area. Lawless said the pair joined the fight against gentrification, tried to tackle poverty and ran a summer employment agency for neighborhood children.
But Lawless needed money, so he got a job as a social worker at the St. Louis Medium Security Institution, widely known as the workhouse.
Lawless said many of the Soulard projects needed the services of a lawyer. At the workhouse, “Most of the requests I had from people was to contact their lawyers.”
He also recalled a lawyer aiding a client who had complained about an illegal search.
“It kind of showed me the value of a good lawyer,” Lawless said.
‘What’s best for the people’
Lawless graduated from St. Louis University’s law school in 1977. He interned with legal giant Theodore McMillian when he was on the Missouri Eastern District Court of Appeals and with an agency that handled employment discrimination cases. After graduation, he became then-U.S. District Judge Edward L. Filippine‘s first law clerk.
Filippine said Friday that, “Everywhere he went, I heard great things about him. And everywhere he went, he was always looking out for what’s best for the people.”
After a year, Lawless joined a private law firm, where he stayed for about three years. He then worked in a state public defender office handling conflict cases in St. Louis and St. Louis County.
“It was trial by fire,” Lawless said. “I mean I was trying 11, 12 cases a year.”
After a few years, he joined renowned local criminal defense attorney Norm London‘s firm. But Lawless said his heart “was really in the public defense.”
In 1984, he joined the federal public defender’s office, which at that time handled mostly cases in southern Illinois. Criminal defense for the poor in St. Louis was being handled by court-appointed lawyers, as the majority of federal judges didn’t want a public defender system, Lawless recalled.
The public defender’s caseload consisted of a lot of stabbings and murders of inmates and guards at the Marion prison.
“Nobody really wanted to take those cases,” he said.
But as older judges retired, the mood shifted and more work started flowing to the public defender’s office. There was also an increasing caseload due to the war on drugs and the expansion of federal criminal prosecutions, he said.
By 1994, independent offices were established for eastern Missouri and southern and central Illinois.
Lawless was appointed head of the St. Louis office in 2006, after London retired.
As a federal public defender, Lawless has witnessed an expansion of his office but said he’s also seen an evolution in the professionalism of the lawyers on the Criminal Justice Act panel who help out Lawless’ office. Lawless said that with the help of a succession of chief judges, “There’s been a real interest in training and helping the practice of the panel.”
Nanci McCarthy, a supervisor in Lawless’ office, will take over as acting head and will fully take over when all the “paperwork is finished,” Lawless said.
Lawless said he will co-teach a class in sentencing advocacy, researching all aspects of a client’s life to be able to present them in context during a criminal case, whether in plea negotiations or at sentencing, as well as incorporating sentencing patterns and criminal justice research. It’s something that he has taught in multiple workshops for years.