Gail Nastasia, my mom, became a lawyer because she wanted prestige and she wanted to help people. She’s been a lawyer for thirteen years. She went to school and worked while raising my brother and me as a single mom. In our interview she talks about why she chose to be a bar advocate instead of a public defender, how she got to where she is today, and that she doesn’t defend criminals, but rather their rights.
You need to have a bachelor’s degree in order to get into law school. It doesn’t matter what it’s in—it could be in English or paralegal studies, and then you go to law school. Typically, if you go full time it’s three years, but you can obviously do it part time too. I did about two years part time and another couple of years full time. I was [working] and I had two small children.
I was [a paralegal for] nine years. I just happened to want to be in the legal field because I had friends who were in trouble, as was I. Criminal trouble: drugs and arrests and all kinds of trouble.
I think for me growing up I didn’t think that was an option. I didn’t have ideas about what I wanted to be when I grew up when I was younger because I didn’t really think I would grow up. I thought that I would die really young, because most people did, that was my experience so I didn’t really think about long term.
But there was one person, my friend Serena, her mother was at North Shore Community College and I slept at Serena’s house one night, and … [Serena’s mom] brought us to school with her. And I remember walking into the cafeteria and—the school, learning, and people with their backpacks—that’s the day I was probably ten, when I said, Oh my god, this is college. I never even knew what college was. My mother had a couple of jobs in my life.
For Peter Kaplan I did bankruptcies as his paralegal; I did everything for a while and then he hired somebody to do the personal injury portion of his practice—he had two fields. And then when I went to law school they talked about the fact that immigration law was, I wouldn’t say up and coming, but an important area that needed attorneys. And I had no desire to do family law or even criminal law.
My father-in-law said you should do criminal law. He had been a cop and he’s the one who told me who to call. I called the Bar Advocate Office and I was talking to Debbie, my friend now, and I told her about my father-in-law and him saying that I should call to be a public defender, and she said, no, no, you don’t want to be a public defender, you want to be a bar advocate. That’s what we do here. And she said what it is is you’re a private contractor for the state so you take cases for the state but you bill the state as opposed to working as a state employee. And I can do all my own private stuff: so I can still do personal injury, I can still do immigration, I can still do bankruptcy.
[If you’re a public defender] you can’t do anything else. You can’t even draw up a will for your own mother. [But] you have benefits. I’m not an employee, which is nice because I do my own thing, I’m not on the clock, but I don’t have a 401K, I don’t have insurance. When I got cancer I didn’t have any. I can buy that, but I didn’t. [As an employee] you get time off, you get vacation, you get sick time; I don’t have any of that.
I don’t defend [criminal] actions; I defend their rights. We have a constitution and there’s a reason for that. We have rights: we have the right to remain silent if something is going to incriminate ourselves; we have the right to not say something about somebody else if we’re married to them; we have the right to privacy; to not be searched unless there’s a reason. If those rights aren’t given, if we aren’t afforded those rights, that’s where I come in. If we are, if I have a client who’s selling drugs, and the police stop his car and it’s a valid stop—not because of the color of his skin, not because he has a New Hampshire plate and he’s in Massachusetts—if they stop his car because he runs a red light or he’s got an invalid plate, or no inspection sticker, and they pull him over and check his license and say, yeah you’re license isn’t good, so they arrest him for that and then search him because of that arrest, then they did everything right and he takes a plea. He does his, not necessarily his time, but whatever his penalty is. Then that’s the way it’s supposed to be.
I don’t have an issue with somebody going to jail. If somebody goes to jail because they were committing a crime then that’s okay with me. I’ve only had one person go to jail for a long time. Thirty-three months, that’s the longest. That’s the only trial where I had somebody going to jail. I have a pretty good track record.
(Nastasia only goes to one or two trials a year.) You want to try and get the best result for your client before going to trial, because a trial is a guilty or a not guilty. If it’s going to be a guilty then you’re at the mercy of the judge as far as sentencing. If you have a pretty good idea that your client’s going to be found guilty, then you’re going to want to plead it out because then you can work out a deal with the prosecution. If you are pretty confident that your client’s going to be found not guilty, like if you don’t believe the Commonwealth has enough evidence, then you can file a motion to dismiss, suppress, you can try to get it done that way, or you can have a plea. Where you’re not sure if they’ll be found not guilty, you could do probation for a period of time.
With a trial you come to court, you come to court, you come to court. It could be a year waiting for all the evidence to come in: 911 calls, photos, whatever, and then you got to go to trial which is a whole other time and effort. Sometimes people are like I’ll just do the probation, by the time you go to trial, probation will be over, and the case is dismissed instead of taking that risk of going before a jury.
A lawyer’s job is really kind of like a mediator in a lot of ways. Obviously it’s a representative, but we’re trying to get the best possible result, whatever that is, and it’s not always a fight. A fight is not always the best way to get a result.