Public Defender in the Jefferson County Public Defender’s Office
Ms. Fonteneau is currently the Public Defender in the Jefferson County, Alabama Public Defender’s Office in Birmingham. After graduating from The University of Georgia School of Law in 2005, she worked in a civil practice before starting her own solo firm, where she did both criminal defense and civil work. When Jefferson County decided to open a public defender’s office, Ms. Fonteneau wanted to participate. Jefferson County is one of only a handful of counties in Alabama that has a public defender’s office. Once the office is open, Ms. Fonteneau will hire 38 additional attorneys for the office and support staff. Once the office is open, cases will come to the public defenders through appointments by judges.
Ms. Fonteneau believes it is important for law students and recent graduates to reach out to attorneys in the fields in which they want to work. Law students should volunteer or ask to observe a hearing or deposition. Be persistent without hounding the attorney. Ms. Fonteneau also advises students and recent graduates to learn how to network. When she moved to Alabama, she had no ties to the state, so she got involved in leadership positions with the Birmingham Bar. She recommends getting involved with practice area organizations like the Alabama Criminal Defense Lawyers Association, the Georgia Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, or even a legal aid clinic.
Law school prepares you for careers in the law, but it doesn’t give you all of the answers you need for practice. However, Ms. Fonteneau says that just because you don’t know everything or even enough things about practicing law, that doesn’t mean you can’t be competent. It just means that you can’t overlook small things, you must double check, prepare yourself, and ask appropriate questions. Never presume that you can’t ask a question. The practice of law is about learning to marry legal thought with common sense. Ms. Fonteneau advises students and recent graduates against shoehorning themselves into a practice area. Rather, you should try different things and a practice area will find you. She also suggests that law students take a clinic before they graduate, so they can get some practical experience.
As a criminal defense attorney, Ms. Fonteneau deals with real people and their issues and is exposed to interesting fact patterns. Criminal defense attorneys generally get more trial experience than people who go straight into civil work after law school. That makes criminal defense work a great proving ground for interacting with juries and learning to think like a lawyer.