Kathy Pakes has made a career out of understanding the troubles and needs of the people she is working with at any given moment.
Now the assigned counsel division director in the Wisconsin State Public Defender’s office, she spent an early part of her career as a public defender in Louisville.
That experience — advocating for people struggling with social, financial, mental-health and other issues — has had a strong influence on the rest of her career in criminal law, Pakes noted.
“Understanding the issues facing people, and the effect on communities when social problems are not addressed, shaped my approach as a prosecutor,” she said.
Pakes added that a “tough-on-crime” approach, though it may sound good as a campaign slogan, could end up hurting not only the families of anyone involved in a case but also communities and taxpayers in the long run.
After moving back to Wisconsin, Pakes was elected district attorney in Rusk County. Following four re-elections, she took a position as a legal counsel in the public defender’s office in Madison.
Holding a politically elected position meant that she could begin looking at how cases affected the larger community.
“Instead of thinking about criminal law as simply representing a client in court,” she said, “I realized the taxpayer is an important component of the criminal justice system, as is transparency in the work of elected officials.”
Pakes made it a point to always meet with members of the community who come to her office with questions or concerns.
“While we may not have always agreed, I think people appreciated the time and explanation,” Pakes said.
As director of the assigned council division for the State Public Defender, Pakes is charged with overseeing private attorneys who accept appointments from the state office. She works with more than 1,100 private lawyers, who together handle about 57,000 cases a year.
In taking on such a large workload, Pakes said she relies on assistance from the “great staff” in the assigned council division. She added that the key to success in managing a workload of that size is her ability to have confidence in her colleagues, delegate responsibility and keep an open mind to learn from others’ experiences.
Using these methods, “We become more aware, better informed and way more effective,” she said.
And Pakes would know a thing or two about drawing from others’ experiences, given that she has done so from the beginning of her career.