From the Courtroom to Chemo


It took me two and a half years to graduate law school. I graduated early because I desperately wanted to be done. And I managed to pass the Florida bar exam on the first try, shocking a lot of people (I have a fear of standardized tests). And like many law grads, I struggled to find a job.

But the Public Defender’s Office here in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, gave me a chance.

My first year as an assistant public defender kicked my ass. I had back-to-back trials in one division with a state attorney who just seemed to make my life a living nightmare. But I survived.

Then I was put into domestic violence court. It was hard. I had people screaming, threatening me, attacking each other, and so many other wild issues when I was in there. At one point, I had over 290 cases. And that’s when they assigned me and my trial partner Baker Acts and State Hospitals (a short-lived assignment).

I sat in DV for almost a year before I finally got my promotion to felony.

I was put in what was considered the hardest courtroom there is against a judge who had no issue sending anyone to prison.

For two years, I worked 12-16 hour days for six or seven days a week trying to keep up and trying to be the best public defender I could be. I spent my weekends and holidays with my clients in the jails, visiting with them, making sure I could get messages to their families, going through discovery and evidence. I spent my nights ripping through police reports and buried in case law.

But my favorite part of the job was being in court.

There is nothing better than the thrill of battling in a courtroom.

I finally felt like I was helping people when I first stood at the podium. I got to argue issues that were fundamental rights and constitutional protections. I got to call out the bad cops. I got reemed by judges. I almost got thrown in contempt.

Being in the courtroom was a high. The adrenaline made the bad days worth it.

So after I got sick and was out on medical leave for almost four months recovering from my surgery, I was lost. My chiefs had to transfer my cases so clients had a chance, and I fell apart.

The day my PA and chemo nurse told me I wasn’t allowed in a courtroom, I wondered what was the point in being an attorney anymore?

I went back to work and was assigned the task of working on cases before they got filed. So basically my job was to try and convince the state to not go forward on cases. I couldn’t go to the jails. I couldn’t really see clients. My blood counts were always in the dirt, so exposure to illness wasn’t an option, and, unfortunately, the jail, because of its conditions, was ripe for outbreaks. The courtroom was too risky because a lot of my clients were homeless and without medical treatment, so my risk of infection was too high.

They only gave me two divisions when I started, with only clients out of custody.

For one whole week, I didn’t get a single case.

Instead, I sat in an office and watched as my friends, my former trial partners, dressed in their suits with boxes of files, marched off to court to fight the good fight.

I was left behind.

I can’t tell you how many nights I spent crying thinking how messed up it was that cancer not only took my health, my ability to have children and my body parts, but now my job, something I poured blood, sweat and tears into.

It got to me.

And then when someone made the comment that I wasn’t a real attorney anymore, my world came crashing in.

I wasn’t an attorney because I wasn’t in the courtroom.

So I hid in my office. Bored. And tired from chemo.

I began asking attorneys if I could research for them. Nicely, they let me begin to help.

The more research I did, the more they asked for help.

I began really ripping apart the cases I got. I wrote notes out for the attorneys, did research, sent out the investigators for information and evidence, and wrote out defenses.

Once I got more energy I began asking for more cases.

I went from two division to four. Each case got equal treatment, and I began really digging through research and studying the computer system to see what I could do to help the trial attorneys.

I had decided if I couldn’t be in a courtroom, I would make damn sure each case I touched would be worked up like how I worked on cases before I got sick.

As my energy came back I did more things. Even with chemo, I asked for more work. I began helping the others in my division by picking up the computer work so they could focus on the jails.

Suddenly, we had a better flow of things.

I went from four divisions to 13 in a matter of months.

As of today, I have 14 felony divisions with cases ranging from petty thefts to murder. I still help trial attorneys, and I work on all my cases as if I was the one taking them to trial or deciding the best course of action. I built up enough energy that I did a lecture in the office about cancer and the issues survivors cope with and how we can use those in court. I’ve worked on a RICO case. I’ve helped as the office attorney on major trials — all while going to treatment, having surgeries and dealing with everything that involves being a survivor.

Sometimes it still hurts to watch the trial attorneys go off to court. I feel lonely, and I miss it.

But then an attorney comes by and thanks me for how much I did on a case and how helpful I was, that I found a great defense. And I feel better.

Just because I can’t be in a courtroom right now, something I loved, because it’s too dangerous for me given my multitude of issues, doesn’t mean I’m not an attorney. I found a job and a niche that it turns out my office needed, and I have found a way to feel useful. My degree hasn’t gone to waste. I’m not wasted.

I’m a survivor. Both in cancer world and in law world.

My name is Joanne Wilson, and I am a badass attorney who you’ll never see in a courtroom but who dominates it from chemo world.

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Getty image via FluxFactory


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