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Public defender intern learns legal ropes in Hall office
Tim Wang, an intern with the Hall County Public Defender’s Office, works on a pending case in the law library Friday afternoon. - photo by NAT GURLEY

Tim Wang, 25, is Californian through and through, born, bred and educated in the Golden State.

Yet when it came time for the UC-Davis third-year law student to find a summer internship, he ended up in Georgia at the Hall County Public Defender’s Office.

“It would have been nice to stay in California, but it’s like I told people: This is your last chance to go anywhere before you settle down into a career,” he said. “I was thinking which internship or which job would give me the most experience, and talking to people with Gideon’s Promise, it sounded like they would provide the most practical experience.”

Gideon’s Promise is an Atlanta-based organization whose mission is to support public defenders in the deep South who bear the burden of some of the steepest case loads in the country.

He arrived in Georgia the last week in May for a Gideon’s Promise training seminar with the other interns, most of whom had come from the South, he said.

“For Gideon’s Promise, they work with different offices throughout the South. Some people were sent to Kentucky; some people were sent to Tennessee,” he said.

Hall County wasn’t Wang’s first choice once he got the Gideon internship.

“My first choice was DeKalb, then Knoxville, and then Hall County. If it wasn’t Tennessee, I really wanted to stay in Georgia. I had never been to Georgia, and heard Atlanta was a great city, and there’s a lot of great history here,” he said.

And before starting his internship, he had never been to the South.

“Culture shock. That’s the word I use. Things I noticed off the bat when I first came here: People are generally friendlier, they have manners. They say ‘sir,’ ‘ma’am,’ things like that. The food is really, really good. And so far the weather hasn’t been too bad ... well, until lately,” he said.

Wang said he’s noticed differences in Hall County that carry into the work as well.

“It’s not too different, but I guess personality-wise, people in California are more ... they’re more standoffish, I guess, I don’t know how to describe it. At least the counties I work in there, people were more standoffish. Here, people, and especially people like Travis (Williams), they actually show that they care about their clients. They take time to speak with them, and they care about their lives,” he said.

The public defenders he worked with in California were less focused on their clients and more focused on the entity they’re up against: the state.

“Public defenders in California, they’re more about doing their job, and they do it well, don’t get me wrong. But they’re more anti-government, anti-state powers, things like that,” he said.

Wang certainly knows about anti-government sentiments. His parents are ethnically Chinese, but were born in South Korea. His grandparents left in the wake of Mao Zedong’s communist takeover of China.

But life wasn’t always a bed of roses in the U.S., he said. At a young age, he witnessed the tumultuous side of Los Angeles in the ’90s, and also heard the stories about that time from his parents, who moved back to South Korea.

“With the earthquake, and the riots, things started piling on. Being exposed to that world, I’ve always wanted to help,” he said.

The experience instilled in him a desire to help the economically disadvantaged.

“I wanted to do something with helping the poor, helping poor people get on their feet, make their lives better. So I was thinking along the lines of social work or public policy, things like that,” he said.

Wang majored in criminology at the University of California-Davis as an undergraduate, and law school emerged as a possible avenue.

“I didn’t even think about becoming an attorney before I went to college,” he said.

Many of Wang’s friends he said are also pursuing careers in public policy, and didn’t understand going the indigent criminal defense route as an avenue in public service.

“Most of my friends, initially, they didn’t like public defenders. But then when they became my friends and I told them more about it, they kind of looked into it themselves, too, and they all love public defenders now,” he said.

“When they think about a criminal defense attorney, they didn’t think about how it’s not so black and white. So, when I talk to them about how there’s so much gray in between, and the work we do. You’re not trying to get bad people off; you’re trying to help people in bad situations.”

And as he hoped, his internship has given him plenty of hands-on experience.

In Georgia, third year law students who have taken the required courses are allowed to practice, and “you can do pretty much anything, as long as you’re under the supervision of an attorney,” he said.

Two weeks ago he started going to Hall Magistrate Court for committal hearings, also known as a “probable cause hearing,” where the accused has a chance to see their charges either sent to Superior Court, State Court or dismissed.

“It was very interesting. The first one I ever did, I think I got super lucky,” he said. “People kept telling me, ‘You know, 99 percent of the time the case is going to get bounded over to Superior Court.’ The first one I did actually one of the charges got dismissed, and the other one got reduced to a misdemeanor, so it was pretty exciting.”

Albeit it was “nerve-wracking” as well, he said. It’s his first time applying classroom lessons in trial, and not just behind the scenes investigating cases. His supervising attorney had to step in a few times, he said.

“It was harder than it sounded,” he said, of being in court. “But you just have to do it. You can’t just sit in a classroom and be told how it’s done.”

Being in Hall County also gave Wang the unique chance to interact with and be supervised by some of the attorneys featured in the HBO documentary “Gideon’s Army,” which followed the lives of public defender’s who were mentored by Gideon’s Promise,

Senior attorney Travis Williams was one of the film’s two main subjects, and senior attorney Brett Willis narrated portions of the film.

“It was really fun seeing people that I work with everyday on the big screen,” he said. “It was awesome meeting Travis, and Brett’s my supervisor; he’s also in the film. And John Rapping, he’s the director of Gideon’s Promise, I met him the first week. They were kind of like celebrities before I met them, so I was a little nervous.”

Before he heads back to the West Coast, he’s hoping to argue a case before a jury.

Wang said that Christian Fuller, an attorney in the Dawson County public defender office of the circuit, offered to assist and supervise him on a misdemeanor trial for simple assault if the timing works out.

“To call yourself a trial lawyer, you have to do a trial, so that’d be something I look forward to. Win or lose, it’s a rite of passage,” he said.

But it may not be the last time Wang sees the inside of a Georgia courtroom.

In a mere month, he’s come a long way since assuming this internship would be his “last chance” to experience life outside California.

“Initially I wanted to stay in California, if you couldn’t tell by my history. I was born in California, raised in California, went to California schools, so California was where I wanted to be,” he said. “But after working for Gideon’s Promise, I feel a lot more open to working in places where they actually need more public defenders.

“One thing I’ve learned is there are a lot of attorneys who are dedicated to being public defenders. They’re very dedicated. They’re very good, too, but there’s not a lot of them. So it’s not necessarily that you need more qualified people, or more motivated people to be here — you just need more people.”

“My end goal is to be a public defender. I’ve decided it doesn’t matter where, as long as I like the office and the area needs good public defenders,” he concluded. “Georgia fits that bill. I would love to work here given the opportunity.”

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