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Florida Voices: Julian Harrison, Small-Town Attorney

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This is Florida Voices, a series of ordinary Floridians with extraordinary stories.
Find more in our weekly podcast, The Point.
Do you know someone whose story should be told? Email news@wuft.org.

Julian Harrison was sworn into the Florida Bar Association on October 9, 1972.

Shortly after, he landed a job in a small-town called Bushnell. He and his wife Mary moved to Bushnell and never left. At 74 years old, he continues to work as an attorney handling criminal and family matters. “It is not unusual for lawyers to continue to practice,” he said.

Throughout his 45 years practicing, he has represented thousands of criminal defendants, but he will never forget the hardest case he had to represent: a man charged with first-degree murder and on trial for his life.

Why did you want to become an attorney?

When I was in high school, sometimes I thought about [being] an attorney. After I flunked out of junior college, I came back and finished well in undergraduate. I made a pretty high score on the law school admission test so I rekindled that ambition and I got admitted to law school. I think I wanted to be an attorney because I thought it was a prestigious thing to be.

What do you enjoy most about your job?

I like to help people and I feel good when I have. Unfortunately, in the business I’m in, sometimes helping a person maybe to convince them that yes you need to take this plea agreement and do your two years in prison rather than going to trial and risking 10 to 15 years in prison.

What would you say is the hardest part of representing criminal defendants?

You have to show a little courage and bravery and it’s hard to do sometimes. Sometimes you have to speak truth to power. You represent people who don’t have a good reputation.

Is it rare for people your age to still practice?

I am 74 years of age and it is not unusual for lawyers to continue to practice. I know a number of lawyers who either have practiced or are still practicing into their 80s. Now it’s not a majority, but believe me we don’t all make enough money to live in the way we would like to continue to live. The law is something you can do one day a week if you want to. It’s very hard for young lawyers today because the jobs are just not out there like they used to be. You have to sort of look for a niche and I guess my niche is trying to get people out of the Sumter County jail.

Have you ever felt discredited as an attorney because of your age?

No, not really. Some of my clients are older and I think feel better to deal with an older person. Most of the criminal defendants are younger but when you deal with a criminal defendant you often deal with their parents or grandparents too. I’ll tell you the secret of practicing criminal defense law: plenty of grandmothers with credit cards. You don’t work if you don’t get paid.

How have things changed over the years?

The way you practice law is pretty much the same, but the technology has really gotten better. For example, when I started practicing law they were just beginning to get computerized word processing. It was another 10-15 years after I came to Sumter County, that computerized word processing was common. Lawyers didn’t do any of their typing or word processing those days. Now it’s all text messaging or emailing. For young lawyers, most of them do their own word processing on the computer.

How do you feel when you look back on your 45 years of practicing?

It’s mixed. I feel like I could have done a lot better if I kept my nose to the grind stone and not procrastinated enough, but there are a lot of things I look back at and I feel like I did a good job from many people. I figured the other day I’ve had about 8500 clients in my 45 years.

Do you plan to retire anytime soon?

I’m going to close my office in January and probably do some criminal defense work, but I’m not going to do anything else. I’m basically going to cut my phone down to one line. I’ll have my phone, computer, and copier in a room in my house. Frankly, doing criminal defense most of your clients are in jail.

Is this what you pictured it would be like as an attorney?

I really had no idea. You know I put some resumes out and I got this call to come to Bushnell. We both were from the country and we thought this would be good for our children. I like Bushnell. I don’t really plan to go anywhere else.

What advice would you give to future attorneys?

You only get one chance to do the right thing — usually. Your reputation matters a lot. The other thing I would say is it doesn’t matter what you major in to go to law school. It didn’t when I went, and I don’t think it does now. I was a history major. I think some work experience other than college might be helpful. If you’re going to be a small-town country lawyer, you need to be able to read well, write well, reason and think.

Julian Harrison holds a picture of himself from September 1972, which is the date he graduated from law school at the University of Florida.
He has worked in private practice for more than 25 years, but said he plans to close his law office in January 2018.
“It’s really true that in law school you learn to think like a lawyer and a lot of the ways lawyers think is counter-intuitive to common sense,” he said.
Looking back on his 45 years practicing, he said the way people practice the law hasn’t changed, but the technology has greatly improved.
Harrison walks to the Sumter County Courthouse on a Monday morning for an arraignment hearing scheduled for two of his cases.
Before the arraignment begins, he talks with fellow criminal defense and family law attorney, Mark Shelnutt.
Harrison said, “If you’re gonna be a small-town country lawyer, you need to be able to read well, write well, reason and think.”
Harrison stands before Judge Militello with his client – who was charged with a misdemeanor – and moves for a continuance on her case.

Find more Florida Voices in our weekly podcast, The Point. Do you know someone whose story should be told? Email news@wuft.org.

About Stacey Sapp

Stacey is a reporter who can be reached by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org.

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