Tony Purcell had a five-year plan.
He would do two years with the Mecklenburg County Public Defender’s office working with misdemeanors, two years working with felonies and then go into private practice.
That plan was hatched in 1996, when Purcell, now 47, joined the public defender’s office right out of law school. Then, an internship at a private law firm confirmed that was not for him.
His first summer internship, after his first year at Buie’s Creek Law School (now Campbell University School of Law in Raleigh) was in a district attorney’s office. After that he interned the following summer in a public defender’s office, where he felt at home.
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“It felt more impactful,” he said. And he was right.
Purcell is the 2014 recipient of the Unsung Hero Award from Leadership Charlotte, one of its legacy awards given to individuals who have made an impact on the community. He also won the 2014 John Rubin Teaching Award from the Indigent Defense Services for his dedication to teaching and training public defenders.
“I enjoy what I do, and that’s why I do it,” Purcell said. “Not for any award or acknowledgment.”
Purcell passed the North Carolina bar in August 1996 and began working as a public defender that September.
“I was first chair on a murder case right before I turned 30,” Purcell said. “I was very lucky to be there at a time when I could advance that quickly. The system isn’t set up that way anymore.”
Purcell, who lives in Providence Plantation with his wife, Mara, and two sons, Chad, 13, and Drew, 12, knows how new attorneys are trained and assigned cases because he is in charge of them.
As the Misdemeanor Unit Supervisor, Purcell hires staff members for the public defender’s office. He said he has trained and supervised 110 attorneys.
He is still in the courtroom every day with two new cases, but, he said, “the bulk of my time is devoted to supervising other attorneys.”
“About every three to four months, I have a brand new attorney come in who is eager, aggressive and ready to learn,” Purcell said. “Their excitement to become trial attorneys keeps me young and motivated.
“I help them develop the tools ... and also help them gain perspective on the big picture of the system and their role in it.”
Purcell said what he finds most gratifying is seeing attorneys he has trained “blossom and succeed in their own right.”
Several attorneys who began their careers under Purcell’s supervision are now judges and prominent members of the N.C. Bar.
“Seeing them command the respect of a courtroom and knowing you played a part in their legal career is great,” Purcell said.