But when he got a taste of working for the State Public Defender’s Office in Milwaukee County’s juvenile court during his second summer in law school, Schleis was hooked. He did an externship there the following semester, this time in adult court.
“All those experiences got me into not just the trial work, not just criminal defense, but it got me into wanting to be a public defender,” Schleis said. “I met so many awesome people. It was such a supportive agency.”
After graduation, he got a job as an associate at a criminal defense firm in Milwaukee. Nine months later, he took a job, in June 2015, in the SPD’s Waukesha office. He spent his first year working on standard adult criminal cases before he was asked to take on the type of work he does now, which primarily involves juvenile and Chapter 51 mental-health cases.
The part of his work that he enjoys the most is the litigation.
“I almost look at it as a competition — I was in sports all my life,” he said. “Just being in the courtroom, doing your best, putting everything you’ve learned, everything you’ve practiced into basically a competition in court trying to convince the judge, trying to convince the jury — that part of it is just so fun.”
But the work is not without its frustrations. For one, there’s the seemingly inevitable questions he hears voiced sometimes even by his fellow lawyers: How do you represent those people?
“What I tell people is, ‘Just think about someone you love. … If something out of the ordinary happened, you were at a low point at your life, and you needed someone, wouldn’t you want someone to be there with you? At least listen? At least give you a shot?’ Most people are going to say ‘yes,’” Schleis said.
For his own inspiration, Schleis draws on his girlfriend, who is a public defender in Milwaukee County, and his colleagues in the office.
“All the lawyers in my office are so dedicated to the cause and so dedicated to doing everything they can to get the best outcome for the client,” he said. “It’s very tough. We’re in it for the client.
I don’t know what I’m going to be doing in 10 to 15 years. I don’t have any plans. I’m going to keep doing what I love to do, which is this job.”