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Editorial


Front Page - Friday, June 30, 2017

Wamp doing what ‘a lot of attorneys can’t’




Coty Wamp is an attorney working in the public defender’s office in Hamilton County. She says her passion for indigent criminal defense motivates her to be a zealous advocate for her clients. - Photograph by David Laprad

Coty Wamp says she believes she is one of a rare breed of attorneys. Although she spends her days arguing with her colleagues, few of them would debate her on this point.

Since becoming a lawyer in 2014, Wamp, 28, has worked for the office of the Hamilton County Public Defender, a job, she says, not every attorney is cut out to do.

“You have to be able to thrive in a fast-paced environment, which a lot of attorneys can’t,” she adds. “It’s the only kind of law that’s like an emergency room. You’re running in circles, you have 18 things to do and only a few hours to do them, and you’re dealing with every crime imaginable.

“A lot of attorneys are good at sitting in their office and billing hours. They get to sip their coffee and read the news while they take a break from writing contracts or researching employment law,” Wamp continues. “We don’t have that luxury. We have 60 clients a piece, and we’re going all the time to keep our heads above the water and do a good job.

“It’s a lot to juggle, but if you’re going to be a public defender, you have to be good at that. Not a lot of attorneys are.”

The relentless pace is not the only challenging part of her job, Wamp adds. Dealing with clients who are less than delighted to see her is another.

“I spend a lot of time with people who are in the worst place in their life,” she points out. “Most of them are in custody, so they often don’t treat us as well as they should.”

This doesn’t trouble Wamp, though. Instead of being offended, she strives to be tolerant.

“I can’t hold how they treat me against them. I have to understand that these people are in a bad place – whether or not it’s their fault,” Wamp says. “They might not be the most pleasant people to deal with, but how can you be when you’ve been in jail for six months?

“At the end of the day, they deserve a break, and I’m going to fight for them to get it.”

As trying as some clients can be, Wamp’s personable approach to interacting with them can be disarming. Instead of sitting down with a client, coolly telling them what they’re facing and then leaving, she prefers to build a rapport with the accused.

“My clients like me more and have a greater appreciation for my work when I’m willing to go into the jail and hang out with them,” she explains. “If they want to talk with me about their son who has a birthday coming up, then we can do that until the judge calls me.

“That’s the only way I feel effective, even when I have to go back there and tell them, ‘I like you and I feel your pain, but you’re going to have to go to prison for eight years.’”

Even though Wamp can serve less-than-gracious clients without feeling offended by them, she says the job has changed per perspective. She thought the world was “a rosier place” before she became a public defender and says maintaining a positive outlook takes work.

For this reason, she’s grateful she’s acquired coping skills to ensure her work doesn’t adversely affect her.

“During my first year of practice, I reached the point where I was asking myself, ‘Can I do this long-term? Is this weighing on me? Am I losing faith in society?’” Wamp says.

“I learned to compartmentalize, to let work be work and home be home and to not lose faith in society,” she continues. “I have to be able to help people who are potentially going to prison for a long time and then go home and not think about it. I can’t go home thinking there isn’t any good in the world.”

Wamp can trace her desire to practice public service law to a high school civil rights class at Chattanooga Christian School.

“That was where I first started thinking that there are aspects of our justice system that are not working properly,” she says. “It does the job, but it’s not a perfect system.”

Wamp pursued this line of study as an undergraduate at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville where she majored in political science and minored in African studies.

“I’ve always been drawn to people who don’t have a voice but need one,’’ she says.

Wamp held on to this aspiration through her years at the UT College of Law. Upon graduating, was certain of one thing: she didn’t want to prosecute.

“I’m defense-minded to the core,” she says. “Some of the attorneys in this office have prosecuted, but I’m not one who could easily jump over. I love the underdog. I’d rather advocate for someone than be the person who’s sending them to prison.”

Wamp also emerged from law school fiercely passionate about public service law.

Although her friends who graduated with her are making “a lot more money” at firms in Atlanta and Nashville, she says her heart lies with indigent criminal defense.

“I believe most of the public defenders in this office are here because they believe in this work,” she adds. “We could do well in private practice and make more money, but we love criminal defense.

“This place was the perfect fit for me coming out of law school.”

Although Wamp loves her job, there are things about the system of justice in Hamilton County she would change if given the chance. For instance, she would make it harder in some cases to make arrests.

“A woman will call the police and tell them her boyfriend hit her, and then he’ll go to jail for domestic assault – when nothing happened. She was mad at him so she called the police and made a false accusation,” Wamp says.

“The worst injustices occur when someone alleges something that isn’t true. She didn’t realize that because she said a hammer was involved that he’s going to be charged with Class C felony aggravated assault.”

If one thing characterizes Wamp as much as her passion for justice it’s the way she doesn’t mince words. For example, when speaking about her colleagues on the other side of the courtroom, she offers her pure, unfiltered opinion.

“Prosecutors become obsessed,” she says. “They begin to think everyone is a criminal and should be prosecuted regardless of the facts of a case or what we have to say.

“Take, for example, the theft of a car in one case and the theft of a car in another case. The first person went to a car lot and stole a car. The second person borrowed the car from his mother, who said he could use it for one day, but two days later he hasn’t returned it so she calls the police and reports it stolen.

“The facts are different but the DAs will treat them the same. They’re not hearing me say the second guy borrowed the car from his mom. All they see is the theft of a car.”

If someone accused Wamp of having a cynical streak, though, they would still have to admit she is every bit the zealous advocate her clients need.

As Wamp has been talking within the confines of the Tivoli Center, where she works for Public Defender Steve Smith, her phone has been buzzing nearly nonstop. She confesses that she gives her cell phone number to many of her clients and their families and says half of the messages she’s received are probably from them.

“I’m a people pleaser,” she adds. “If a mom wants to know when her son will be out of jail, I’ll give my number to her and tell her to text me.”

This might sound unconventional at best, and risky at worst, but Wamp is a rare breed of attorney.

Wamp’s tattoos corroborate her distinct nature. A “W” on her left wrist represents her last name. She’s the daughter of former U.S. Rep. Zach Wamp.

On her right ankle, the word “Pendana” declares one of her philosophies in life: the word is Swahili for “love one another.”

While the ink might seem out of place in a courtroom, where pressed suits and adherence to decorum are paramount, it serves to break down barriers between Wamp and her clients.

“I had no idea they would give me as much street cred as they do,” she says, laughing.

A born and raised Chattanoogan, Wamp never lived farther away than Knoxville. Today, she has a residence on the North Shore, which places her close to her family, including her father, her mother, Kimberly, her brother, Weston, and his wife and children.

When Wamp has a few spare hours, she can usually be found with them.

Although Wamp doesn’t yet know if she’s a career public defender, she does want to continue to practice public service law if she ever ventures beyond where she is now.

Nearly three years into her career, being a voice for the voiceless remains her unwavering conviction.

“When I first became a lawyer, I was on the warpath for justice. I’m trying to hold on to that because you’re a much better public defender if you’re passionate about what you do. And I’m very passionate about indigent criminal defense,” she says.

“There are clients who make me wonder why I feel this way because they seem to have no hope. But I’m more effective on the days when I come to work ready to fight for them,” Wamp continues. “I don’t care who I have to argue with, I don’t care what I have to do, I don’t care how stupid I look, I’m going to fight for them.

“That’s how I began, and I have to remind myself every day to not grow discouraged. Two and a-half years into this, I feel like that’s still who I am.”