By Starrla Cray
WINSTED, MN Representing people who can’t afford an attorney isn’t a job for everyone.
“If you don’t like controversy, you don’t want to be a public defender,” commented Fran Eggert of Eggert Law Office in Winsted.
He retired from this part-time role through the state the end of March, noting that “after 41 years, I thought that was probably sufficient.”
Eggert is now concentrating on his private practice, as well as continuing to serve as Winsted’s city attorney.
“I used to be in court three to four times a week; now it’s three to four times a month,” Eggert said. “It’s less stressful, less work.”
Eggert got into public defending one summer during law school, while working for Dick Genty of Winsted, who was chief public defender at the time.
After graduation, Eggert was hired full time in Winsted, and became an assistant public defender.
“When I started, it was just felonies,” Eggert said. “Over the years, it evolved to include misdemeanors, gross misdemeanors, and what they call CHIPS (Child in Need of Protection or Services).”
When a person needs a public defender, they fill out a form to see if they qualify. Then, an attorney is appointed. Minnesota is divided into 10 judicial districts, and the state hires public defenders for each geographical location.
Generally, Eggert’s goal is to mitigate damages.
“A lot of the job is trying to find a way for [the client] to be helped, not just punished,” he said, explaining that the idea is to provide treatment so the person is less likely to commit further crimes. “I always gave clients the benefit of the doubt.”
There are many misconceptions in regards to public defense, according to Eggert.
“Sometimes people think the criminal has all the rights, and that’s not really so,” he said.
People also have a tendency to think that the system is not strict enough, but in reality, more conduct has been made criminal in recent years, Eggert said. He gave the example of driving while intoxicated, in which the legal limit for blood alcohol concentration had been .15, then .1, and now .08. Domestic assault rules have also changed, making it easier to convict.
Eggert estimated that he’s had about 10 murder cases over the years, but the majority of his cases are less serious.
“A lot of it is tied to addictions and mental health issues,” he said. “They’re not necessarily evil people. They don’t know how to deal with issues, and they act out.”
In recent years, Eggert has dealt with about 175 cases annually, most of which are resolved through settlements.
“You have to be a good listener, and be able to tell the client what’s possible and what’s not,” he said.
Some cases are “very intense” for both the client and the victim.
“It’s a significant time in their lives,” Eggert said, noting that he aimed to be a problem-solver for people’s most difficult days.
Eggert said that dealing with a variety of public defense cases has helped his private practice, and has given his career balance.
“I’ve always thought they complemented each other well,” he said, explaining that his other work is more office-oriented, focusing on wills, trusts, deeds, and contracts.
Now that he’s cut back, Eggert is looking forward to spending more time with his grandchildren, and playing more golf.
“I haven’t totally figured it out yet,” he said. “I can go at my own pace.”