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Part-time prosecutors seek work balance

By: Jack Zemlicka, [email protected]//September 19, 2011//

Part-time prosecutors seek work balance

By: Jack Zemlicka, [email protected]//September 19, 2011//

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Elder law attorney Steve Schultz doesn’t mind putting on his prosecutor hat, even if that means occasionally facing current or former clients.

Schultz runs Seifert & Schultz SC, a private practice in northwestern Wisconsin, but also works part time as a prosecutor in the Buffalo County District Attorney’s Office. He said his priority is to avoid conflicts of interest, and he’s confident he’s balanced the opposing sides of the legal spectrum.

Schultz said he tries to avoid clients his firm has represented within the previous three years, and he focuses on low-level violations with the understanding that his work lightens the load for the county.

“If it’s just a speeding ticket,” he said. “We prosecute.”

But attorneys pulling double duty need to be aware of potential ethical problems, said Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm.

It doesn’t matter what the case is, he said.

“From my standpoint, it could technically be allowed,” Chisholm said. “But you would have to make a pretty compelling case that someone could engage in the practice of civil law and also work as a prosecutor before I would ever accede to it.”

There are 59 part-time district attorneys in the state, according to the Wisconsin Department of Administration, but none of the 14 in Milwaukee maintains a private law practice.

Chisholm said that is because part-time DAs in Milwaukee County often put in full-time hours. But beyond that, he said, he wants to avoid even the perception of bias.

“It’s always balanced with perception, and so there has to be that subjective component to what we do,” he said, “so people always perceive that when they seek legal counsel or when prosecution is initiating a case, it’s going to be done fairly and impartially.”

Schultz said he strives to avoid the perception of bias, even when his role as a prosecutor puts him against former clients and threatens the bottom line of his private practice.

“That doesn’t factor into the equation,” he said. “I have a job as a prosecutor to do and I do it. If the person chooses to go to another attorney for the work he needs done in the future, that’s OK.”

Recently, Schultz said, a former client was picked up on drunken driving charges. Schultz, working as a prosecutor, explained to the former client the DA’s offer and that it was the same offer he would get from anyone else.

The former client pleaded guilty, Schultz said, but if that had not happened, the DA’s office would have brought in a special prosecutor to take over the case.

Shelley Torvinen, a part-time prosecutor in Douglas County, runs into similar overlaps with her family law practice in Superior. While she primarily handles traffic or drunken driving cases, Torvinen said, there are times when her divorce cases can cross into domestic abuse situations.

That, she said, is when she steps away.

“I’m basically quarantined off and can’t have any involvement with the prosecution,” she said. “But I might still be able to work on a case that has a nugget of criminal prosecution but is not exactly a family law issue.”

Still, Torvinen said, she’s always aware of the potential for conflicts of interest. For instance, a client in a divorce case returned to court for a custody battle and domestic violence complaint.

She withdrew from the case.

“At that point, I felt it was a little too close for comfort,” Torvinen said. “I explained to the client that, while I wasn’t prosecuting the case, there were aspects that were in conflict with my duty as a prosecutor.”

Torvinen acknowledged turning clients away from her private practice because of potential conflicts with her job as a prosecutor. But she said it’s necessary to balance both jobs.

“I guess it can be a detriment, and it’s something you have to weigh,” she said. “But I’m grateful to keep it close to half-time and maintain my private practice.”

Schultz, 64, said he has never been accused of bias.

“I can’t think of a single one who said they considered it to be unfair treatment,” he said. “If they would, then they are unreasonable clients.”

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