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Front Page - Friday, August 25, 2023

Courtroom ‘adrenaline rush’ hooks Spitalny

Now embracing new role at Best and Brock

Former public defender Phil Spitalny has joined Best & Brock, a Chattanooga law firm that focuses on criminal defense cases. - Photo by David Laprad | Hamilton County Herald

Phil Spitalny’s interest in the law resides at the crossroads of fiction and reality. While he enjoys relaxing with a good legal thriller after a tough day in court, he says, he takes his work defending the accused seriously.

The courtroom heroics of the protagonists in John Grisham’s many legal novels sparked Spitalny’s interest in practicing the law and nudged him onto the path to becoming an attorney. Later, as he interned for Chief U.S. Magistrate Judge Susan Lee, he took a special interest in the criminal cases that came before her.

“I loved the battle between the federal prosecutors and the defense counsel,” says Spitalny, 37. “It was like living in a crime show.”

Or a legal comedy. On one occasion, Spitalny helped a federal public defender with a motion to suppress in a case in which the government had accused the defendant of driving with an expired tag. During a demonstration reminiscent of a scene in “My Cousin Vinny,” defense attorney used measuring wheel to prove the officer was too far from the defendant when he turned his lights on to have seen the tag.

“The federal defender walked the length of the courtroom (with the wheel) and then tested the officer’s vision,” Spitalny recalls with a grin. “That was fun.”

Reality stepped in when Spitalny served as a public defender, first in Whitfield County and then the Lookout Mountain Judicial Circuit. Far from the story bound fictions of Grisham’s novels, he was often the only person standing with an indigent person as the government threw its full weight against them.

Spitalny says this gave his pursuit of the law a purpose and deepened his interest in his chosen profession.

“The interplay between a person’s constitutional rights and scenarios in which a police officer possibly overstepped his bounds, or is not being forthright about what happened, fascinates me,” Spitalny says. “When video of a traffic stop doesn’t mesh up with what’s in the report, I like to dig deep and learn what really happened.”

Today, Spitalny is digging in at Best & Brock, a criminal defense firm with Garth Best and Matt Brock at the helm. The firm has made a local name for itself defending impaired driving crimes – a category of practice with which Spitalny is familiarizing himself.

“That’s a complex area of the law that requires a lot of additional training and knowledge,” Spitalny says. “I hope to become certified in field sobriety testing at a seminar next month.”

Best and Brock have handled a multitude of other cases, as well, including misdemeanors, probation violations, first degree murders and more, providing Spitalny with a base of operations that will feel familiar as he steps into local courtrooms – or, as he puts it, “battlegrounds.”

“I’m here with my mouth shut and my ears listening,” Spitalny says of his new venture, which began as August settled in. “There’s a lot to absorb and I’m excited about the opportunity.”

A born-and-raised Chattanoogan, Spitalny became interested in the law despite having parents who practiced medicine. A love of the slopes – courtesy of childhood trips to upstate New York, where his father grew up – took him west to Boulder, where he earned a degree in political science at the University of Colorado. From there, he spent a year working as a ski instructor in Utah.

Law school was already on Spitalny’s itinerary as he edged further west, so he soon returned to the south to earn his Juris Doctor at the University of Georgia School of Law.

“I really liked law school,” he says. “The first year was extremely difficult, but once I found my place and made some friends, it was an enjoyable time to be in Athens.”

The end of law school brought the beginning of Spitalny’s brief stint with Justice Lee. When the magistrate noted her intern’s interest in criminal cases, she pointed him toward an opening in the Whitfield County Public Defender’s Office.

This is where Spitalny uses the word “battleground” to describe defending clients in court.

“Whitfield County was a great training ground – and battleground – for me. I started slowly with some misdemeanor cases and, as my experience grew, my responsibilities followed in line and I was thrown into the fire.”

Spitalny specifically recalls his first two jury trials, which fell during the same week in 2014. Either one would have made for a busy stretch, but taken together, they served as a nerve-wracking lesson in the complexities of a legal proceeding.

He emerged from the fray clutching one victory and one loss. However, he says he considered the loss a win because the judge gave his client – a babysitter who’d lied to the police about how long she’d left the children she was watching unattended in a car – a sentence that was lighter than the plea.

By Friday afternoon, Spitalny was hooked. “I enjoyed the adrenaline rush of trying a case and the payoff for all the hard work,” he recalls. “I knew I’d found my niche.”

Spitalny served as a public defender until 2022, when he joined the Chattanooga law firm of Luther Anderson. He took the job to “shake things up,” he says.

“I didn’t want to get pigeonholed into that career, so I jumped ship and entered private practice.”

Spitalny continued to take criminal cases and added civil defense work while at Luther. However, the car accident and premises liability cases went against his personal grain as an attorney.

“I worked with some great lawyers and learned a lot, but it solidified that my passion is criminal defense work,” Spitalny clarifies. “I’m happy to refocus solely on criminal law moving forward.”

The chance to break professional bread with Best and Brock came about through Spitalny’s association with the latter, which began through his wife, who knew Brock from their days as students at Ooltewah High School. Brock and Spitalny tossed about the notion of someday working together and then finally decided to move forward with their plans this summer.

Spitalny brings a commitment to community service to Best & Brock. Specifically, he’s passing along his passion for golf to underserved youth by serving as a coach with First Tee of Chattanooga, a nonprofit that introduces the game of golf and its values to young people.

“Historically, golf has had barriers to entry,” Spitalny explains. “First Tee helps underprivileged kids get into the sport.”

Speaking of young ones, Spitalny has gone from single at the beginning of 2022 to married with children today. His wife, Holly, came with a daughter and is expecting her and Spitalny’s first child together to arrive in November.

Spitalny says being a part of a growing family is motivating him to do everything he can to improve his professional prospects. To that end, he’s applying to be licensed in federal court so he can begin handling criminal cases locally.

Although Spitalny says he’s taking the opportunity seriously, don’t be surprised if he shows up in court with a Grisham novel in his briefcase. After all, an attorney needs to relax after a tough day in court.