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Public defender’s legal career comes full circle

Jon Padgham (Staff photo by Kevin Harnack)

Jon Padgham (Staff photo by Kevin Harnack)

Assistant State Public Defender Jon Padgham is the go-to man for the State Public Defender’s Office when it can’t find private attorneys who are willing to take on cases from throughout the northeast quadrant of the state.

The University of Wisconsin Law School graduate has traveled to at least eight counties since July, when he moved into his current role after deciding to trade his former responsibilities managing the SPD’s attorneys in Appleton, Green Bay, Shawano and Peshtigo for more time in court and jail.

“I’m back to where I started when I was down in Lancaster with the state car and a couple of milk crates with my files in them,” Padgham said. “I’m loving it. I’m so thankful to work in the Public Defender’s Office. It’s been a great professional home for me.”

Padgham’s path to a legal career has been as varied as the places where his cases have taken him. Before going to law school, he spent time teaching day care and preschool, went to graduate school for developmental psychology and helped out at his family’s painting business, work that led to him helping paint the Wisconsin Governor’s Mansion and the state Capitol.

“The people that I worked with were hardworking, working class people, tradesmen and then you work with customers who are often times very well off,” he said. “Everyone needed to work together.”

Padgham said that those experiences  – especially the painting job – now help him connect better with his clients.

“One of the greatest compliments I get is when I am talking to one of my clients or, even better, he talks to his family and the client says, ‘He’s cool,’” said Padgham. “It just means that I have figured out how to connect with them.”

Padgham said his work gives him opportunities support people who are trying to do something useful while they are incarcerated. Most of the people on his Christmas list, he said, receive gifts that were made by inmates and that were purchased at prisons when he was visiting clients.

In fact, his favorite Packers and Badgers hats were knitted by inmates in the Jackson or Stanley correctional institutions.

Wisconsin Law Journal: What do you enjoy the most about what you do?
Jon Padgham: I love interacting with the clients. I love hearing their stories. I love the rawness of the emotions and the first meeting … or just being there for someone in their very raw moment of crisis. Some are appreciative, some are not. I just love seeing that part of people and trying to figure out how to help them.

WLJ: What would you say is the toughest part of the work you do?
Padgham: The absolute toughest day is when I see a kid come into system after I’ve represented their parents. It always feels like a failure to me that we haven’t been able to address this family’s needs.

WLJ: Tell me something about your work that other lawyers often get wrong or misunderstand.
Padgham: I don’t think dealing with our clients is any more difficult or easy than dealing with any other type of client. I think there’s this perception that criminal defendants are difficult or abusive to lawyers. I think that the vast majority of our clients are young people who are going to grow out of it. … They’re the same people but in different moments of challenges in their lives.

WLJ: Tell me about your life outside of work. What do you do to get away from your work?
Padgham: My long-suffering wife loves hanging around the outdoors in Neenah and around the state. I love live music of any type. I’m the guy who the kids can talk into bringing them to a show at the Eagle Ballroom in Milwaukee, and I try to hit at least one or two music festivals a year. My favorite is the Eaux Claires Music and Arts festival in Eau Claire, the best weekend of the year.


About Erika Strebel, [email protected]

Erika Strebel is the law beat reporter for the Wisconsin Law Journal and a law school student at UW-Madison. She can be reached at 414-225-1825.

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