It’s a small family at Sheppard, White & Kachergus.
A close-knit bunch with just four attorneys in the fold.
And like with any family, there are disagreements. Shouting matches at times, maybe a curse word thrown in for good measure.
But, it’s never personal says Bill Sheppard. No, the constant arguments are just part of finding the best positions in tough cases. When one of them comes up with a point, they better be ready to explain.
“If you can defend your position here, you can defend it in court,” said Betsy White, a partner with Sheppard in more ways than one.
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The two have practiced together 34 years, 28 of them as husband and wife. Along with attorneys Matt Kachergus, there for 13 years, and Bryan DeMaggio, there for six years, the four “family” members tackle mostly criminal defense and First Amendment cases, often the thorniest ones.
The firm has received numerous accolades over the years, including being ranked this month as a Tier One law firm in U.S. News & World Report’s annual listings. More so, Sheppard, White and Kachergus were listed as “Best Lawyers” for their individual practice areas.
Three out of four. But they think it should have been a clean sweep, “if there is any fairness,” said Kachergus.
“He’s one of the best civil rights lawyers in Florida,” White said about DeMaggio, the latest addition to the firm.
Sheppard was quick to agree.
“Brian ought to be on that damn list,” he said. “He’s a rising star.”
White said while they are grateful for the recognition, “we would do what we do if there was a poll or not.”
“Your reputation doesn’t come from polls,” White said. “It comes from your work.”
Their work often means seeing people at their most vulnerable, in their darkest hour. Sheppard said that for civil rights, it’s often prisoners and those arrested. It’s a complex area that not many attorneys are willing to take up. Some say they do, only to shy away after “they get hit in the face with a sledgehammer,” Sheppard said, with a slight chuckle.
But Sheppard said defending the Constitution always has been paramount. He swore to defend it with his life when he went to fight in Korea. And he swore to uphold it when he became an attorney.
“I’m not offering my life for it, but I’m going to defend it as hard as I can,” he said.
Over the years there have been close calls when the group was in harm’s way. Plate glass windows at their offices have been blown out. The building has been riddled with bullets. Someone once broke in to flood the place.
It’s the First Amendment cases that tend to trigger such reactions, they said. Issues like abortion and religion can be particularly venomous.
But, there are other areas where they defend the unpopular. Like when Sheppard took White to a Florida state prison for the first time, part of defending 146 Death Row inmates’ rights to exercise.
They didn’t want to let White in — they didn’t let women on to the row.
“I’m not here as a woman, I’m here as an attorney,” she recalls telling the guard.
“You didn’t say it quite like that,” Sheppard said, smiling.
More recently, the firm has brought to federal court the right for same-sex couples to be married in Florida. The case is on appeal now in the 11th Circuit.
It’s a family that isn’t afraid of challenges, but it is a tough one to crack. Kachergus and DeMaggio clerked there before being hired. It’s about proving themselves and jiving with the strong personalities exuded from the rest of the group.
“You’re going to work here before you work here,” White said.
As for an attorney simply coming in off the street? That’d be very rare, Sheppard said.
“It doesn’t happen,” Sheppard said. “It’s not going to happen.”
After proving themselves, though, the payoff is well worth it.
“I think the bottom line at this place is we have fun,” Sheppard said. “We have fun doing good stuff.”