Work That Makes a Difference – Willie Santana (’14)

Willie Santana (’14) loves serving people.

As an assistant public defender for the Third Judicial District’s Public Defender’s Office in Morristown, Tennessee, he also loves the law.

In this installment of interviews that feature our alumni who work in public interest law, Santana describes why he is so committed to justice.

Describe the work you do and what a day on the job might involve.

Most days, I arrive at the office between 7:30 am and 8 a.m. Hamblen County Sessions Court Division I (Criminal) holds court Monday through Thursday and occasionally on Fridays. Two assistant public defenders cover court the days it is in session, so I’m in court on average two to three days a week.  

On days that I’m covering sessions court, I will walk to the courthouse early and try to review the files for the clients we have been appointed to represent. On any given day, we represent about a dozen clients in the morning docket and about as many in the afternoon dockets. The cases range from “dog at large” misdemeanors to class-A felonies.  

On days that I’m not scheduled in sessions court, I’m either preparing for the next term of criminal court (our criminal court judge is only here three times a year in March, July, and November) or dealing with issues from the last term of criminal court. Those days typically involve trips to the Hamblen County Jail, returning voicemails, meeting with clients, or reviewing discovery disclosures. We do a little of our own investigating from time to time as well, as our district only has one full-time investigator and one part-time. There’s barely enough time to do everything. I am assigned 23 felony cases in the March 2019 term and about as many for the July 2019 cases.   

Why have you made advocacy such an important part of your legal career?

I’ve had two other careers besides this one. I was a soldier and a banker. When I came to the College of Law, my intent was to become a transactional lawyer. I learned very quickly that I enjoyed advocacy much more than transactional work. Upon graduation, I was only in private practice for a short while. I was very quickly drawn to public interest work which led me to the Knox County District Attorney’s office where I prosecuted white collar crime and elder abuse cases. We did some innovative things that I’m very proud of. I thoroughly enjoyed it. Prosecutors have a special role in our system and I had the opportunity to learn from the best. When I was a prosecutor, I loved doing my job because I love the law and enjoy seeking justice. The prosecutor’s role is special. A prosecutor’s job is not to win the case, but to seek justice. Their responsibility is to the system.

As a public defender, I love my job because I love the law and enjoy seeking justice. One of the founding principles of this country is a staunch faith in the rule of law. If the rule of law means anything, it means that it is not just the citizens who must follow the law. The government must as well.  

When I was a prosecutor my job was to seek justice. Often that meant holding private citizens accountable for violating the law. As a criminal defense lawyer, my job is to make sure the government does. So, I guess, the short answer is that I love our constitutions and serving people.  

What are some of the frustrations that come with this work?

There’s not enough time. There are some legal issues that face my clients that I would love to flesh out. I have clients with cost-prohibitive bonds who choose to plead guilty to crimes the state may not be able to prove, just to get out of jail. The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation takes a long time to process evidence, and I have clients whose lives are on hold for unreasonable timeframes. Several of our sessions judges have created their own “minimum guidelines” that treat all my clients the same and from which they do not deviate. I wish I had the time and resources to flesh out the legal issues associated with those, but I don’t. Any given day, my work resembles more of a crisis triage than I want it to be. 

What are some of the rewards that come with this work?

Despite everything, the job can be fun and rewarding. For most of my clients, the case I’m helping them with is the most important thing going on in their lives. We do good work for them, and it’s very rewarding to see justice being done. 

If you could talk to law students who are considering a similar career path, what would you tell them about your work in advocacy and what advice would you give them?

Do it, but do it with eyes open. The best two jobs I’ve had in my entire life have been as a public defender and prosecutor. Neither job is easy. Both are hard work. If you’re doing it right, both are tough and stressful (although for different reasons). You’re not going to sit back in an office, working from 9 to 5, and watching the money rolling in.   

This is the second in a series of interviews originally published in the May 2019 issue of Tennessee Law.