Spotlight On: Joanne Vallarelli Adam

Please tell us about your background, how long you have been a criminal defense lawyer, and where you practice. 

I went to Cooley while I was still an Air Traffic Controller and then eventually retired from Air Traffic and went to law school full time.  I took the bar in Michigan and Massachusetts and am licensed to practice in both states.  I had family in Massachusetts and thought someday I might spend more time there, but never ended up doing that.

I've been practicing law for 21 years both in criminal and domestic law and although I want to slow down, I have never tired of doing what I do.

Please tell us about your practice.

I started my criminal practice in Ingham and Eaton counties by doing court-appointed work, both misdemeanors and felonies.  I have continued to do court-appointed work for my entire career and, although I also do retained criminal work, because of the contracts I’ve had it seems that most of the criminal work I do comes from the indigent system.  I have been a contract attorney for three judges in Ingham County and also for the two Eaton County District Court judges.  I have also done court-appointed work in Clinton County, and for a while in Livingston County.  I also continue to do neglect cases and juvenile court appointed work, hoping that if I can get them young, maybe I can make a difference in the later behavior.

I believe I have made a difference in many of my clients’ lives.  I have always stayed busy and I think it’s because I treat my clients like people and not Defendants.  I do repeat business with many of my clients, both criminal and domestic.  Many of the criminal folks come back with issues other than being charged with more crimes, and many of them refer me to their friends.

I feel that indigent defendants need experienced lawyers who are willing to do what a retained lawyer would do for them, or at least what they thought a retained lawyer would do for them, which is why I stayed as a court appoint attorney for all these years.  I also have a domestic side to my practice which helps me be able to continue doing court-appointed work, since we all know the pay will not cover our expenses, and in fact gets worse over time.

Please tell us about one of your interesting or unusual cases.  What were the issues?

My most interesting case was not a criminal case, it was a civil medical malpractice case.  My client and I were tied at the hip during the entire case, but it only lasted about 9 months and we were done, with a win.  It was a slam dunk case, but I still had a lot to do and a lot to learn about doing medical malpractice.  After that case, I didn't do any more of these types since I needed a bigger staff and office to specialize in them and that wasn't why I became a lawyer.

Were any experts needed?

I’ve had experts in some of my criminal cases that the judges permitted the county to pay for and for the most part, they were very helpful with my cases.  The areas that I practice in don't seem to have many experts close and even less investigators.  It is sometimes hard to find someone to work for county fees and still be good at what they do.   I think in my second career, I want to learn to be a PI!

Have you noticed any trends in the law in recent years?

I think we have lost more of our rights in recent years and the trend is still going that way.  I don't know that any one of us can change this, but I think the more defense groups we have, may allow us to make changes in the other direction.

Do you have advice for other defense attorneys?

Learn everything you can.  Make sure you connect with at least two or more seasoned defense attorneys that you can call at a moment’s notice to ask questions.  Join the groups, the list serves, go to the seminars.  There is so much information and knowledge out there to be shared.  I think defense attorneys are really the most caring and dedicated group of individuals.  As I write that, it sounds a little corny, but when I go to a seminar  or meeting or conference and as soon as I/you walk in the door,  you are surrounded by people like you and there is an immediate bond.  I like to be a part of the “dark side”, I think we make a difference in a lot of lives and it is a great feeling every day (even on the bad days).

The other little tidbit for all attorneys is to not take your work home with you! It is better to work in your office until midnight and then go home and rest and relax and start fresh again the next day.  We could do this job 24/7 but that is dangerous for us and our family.  At some point during your day, you have to stop doing what we do and go have a life.  It's hard to do that as defense attorneys, I think, there is always one more email or one more case to read.  But this job is hard even on the best of days, so you have to do for yourself as well.  Which is why after 21 years, I'm closing the main office and trying to slow down!  I know there are a lot of you out there that have been doing this much longer than me, but my grand babies have to come first for me now! They are so much fun!!

by Neil Leithauser
Associate Editor