Sam Benedict and Robin Dorman started their legal career on the exact same day in 1979 as two of five attorneys in the Waukesha County office of the Wisconsin State Public Defender.
They shared a desk and a phone, both crammed into an office that was supposed to house their boss’ solo practice.
They also shared the shock of getting a pink slip in 1980, when it wasn’t clear that the SPD had been included in the next budget.
Dorman and Benedict have been good friends ever since. And on July 31, both of them will have spent 40 years working for the SPD.
“Since that time, I’ve viewed Robin as my closest work friend I’ve ever met in my life,” Benedict said. “She’s been the greatest influence on my career.”
Back then, the SPD had just been established in the wake of the landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Gideon v. Wainwright, which required states to provide lawyers to indigent criminal defendants. Waukesha County had never had a trial-level public defender’s office until the day Benedict and Dorman started.
“We sort of started at a time when we were sort of aware that this could be setting the foundation for something, and nobody really knew how it was going to go,” Benedict said. “But I think we were aware that we were at the beginning of something.”
Although the two have worked together for decades, they’ve only tried one case together – a homicide case from about five years ago. But they’ve consulted each other on the thousands of cases they’ve worked on.
“In many ways, I’ve worked with Sam on almost all my cases because we share what we’re doing and we talk about it and we make suggestions – things like that,” Dorman said.
Benedict and Dorman have seen plenty of changes in the criminal-justice system over the years – and had a hand in some of them.
Both were involved in starting treatment courts and diversion programs.
They’ve also seen their share of changes. Some of the biggest ones have involved science, particularly the study of children.
“I think we always knew the kids were different,” Dorman said. “Finally the Supreme Court has acknowledged it, and science supported it.”
“It’s gone mainstream,” Benedict said. “It was on the cover of National Geographic, and I even heard one of our judges say yesterday in the adult criminal court, ‘We know your brain isn’t fully mature until you’re 25.’”
They’ve also seen change within their own agency. Benedict and Dorman no longer work in the same office. Dorman left the Waukesha office in 2003 to work in the Milwaukee Trial office and later moved to the SPD’s Milwaukee Juvenile office in Wauwatosa, where she is regional managing attorney.
Benedict stayed behind, where he is the regional managing attorney of the SPD’s Waukesha County, Jefferson County and West Bend offices.
Although they fondly look back at the path they took and draw inspiration from new attorneys they hire, both Dorman and Benedict are concerned that the chronic underfunding of the SPD, as well as the ballooning cost of law school, will prevent their young colleagues from building careers similar to theirs.
“We’ve been able to make a career out of our passion and love for indigent defense,” Dorman said. “I don’t know that this will always be the case.”