Episode Synopsis: Encouraged at an early age by her nonconformist parents to question authority and to be wary of the dangers of biased legal practices, Molly Parmer was born to be a criminal defense attorney, fiercely fighting for the rights of the marginalized and underrepresented. She shares how her non-traditional upbringing influenced her legal career, which spans from public defender at the state level to a federal criminal defender and eventually owning her own practice in Atlanta, GA where she continues to fight for the underdogs.
Molly: My parents were hardcore hippies. And they never let go of those ideals, even as they were raising children in the ’80s and the ’90s. I mean, they are straight from the late ’60s. And for me, that rhetoric, and that ethos, and that philosophy was what they raised me on. And so I was very little, and yet, I was being told, you know, don’t trust authority, don’t trust police, laws are different than morality. He was very anti-censorship, like, we were supposed to be using all words in all language. And so it was just a very different approach to life than you usually hear when you’re like 5-years-old. So, I think that shapes you in a way that I look back and I’m like, “Oh, well, it all makes sense why I do what I do,” but it’s deep. It runs deep.
Scott: That was Molly Parmer talking about the things that run deep in her life and practice as a federal criminal defense attorney. Molly spent about an hour with me talking about her journey to becoming a criminal defense attorney, and how it was shaped and influenced by her parents, who were deeply part of the countercultural movement of the ’60s. She went from graduating from Georgia Tech to becoming a special education teacher, ultimately, to law school, to being a public defender, defending state crimes to a federal defender, and now to becoming a noted criminal defense attorney. This is “The Advocate’s Key” podcast. For more information about my practice, or for access to other podcast episodes, feel free to check us out at scottkeylaw.com or wherever you find podcasts, or feel free to give me a ring at 678-610-6624. I’m Scott Key. Molly Parmer, welcome to the podcast. It’s an honor and a pleasure to have you on.
Molly: It’s an honor to be on.
Scott: So, tell me a little bit about yourself. I always have guests introduce themselves. Who is Molly Parmer? And what do you do? And just tell the listeners who you are if they don’t know who you are?
Molly: Okay. Sure. Molly Parmer is a human being but she is a lawyer. I do identify very much so as a criminal defense attorney, I’m somebody who loves their job wholeheartedly and completely. And I have my own firm in Midtown Atlanta, where I would say that I specialize in high stakes criminal defense, and predominantly in federal court. Before I opened my firm, I was an assistant federal defender. And before that, I was a public defender in DeKalb County. And before that, I taught special education in Title I public schools. So, I am an advocate for the underdog.
Scott: I didn’t know that you did special education before you went to law school.
Molly: Yes, I taught students who had emotional behavior disorders. So, I have always been, I think, attracted to those people that society erroneously labels as bad.
Scott: I see. And so a little bit about your academic background. So, I guess you had, like, an early childhood education or some sort of education degree before that?
Molly: No, absolutely not.
Scott: No? Okay.
Molly: So, it’s funny because there is such a high need to teach certain populations, at least, when I was looking into it. I went to Georgia Tech, so I have a Bachelor of Science. And I didn’t think I was going to be a teacher, but there are a few people that really wanted to go to Southwest Atlanta, Middle School, Title I, and teach behavior disorders. So, I went through an alternative preparation program right after I graduated from Georgia Tech, and they gave me a classroom in like three months.
Scott: Oh, so you went from Georgia Tech to being a special ed teacher with, I guess, behavioral disorder? I’m not saying this exactly right. But you really went from what doesn’t seem like an area that you studied, or maybe even thought you would find yourself in when you were at Tech?
Molly: Right. Exactly. Now you’re saying it right. So, there was a program that was designed by the Atlanta public schools because they had a high need for teachers, they couldn’t retain teachers. And so right when I graduated, I spent one summer, it was very intensive, but it was basically two and a half months. And then I got a provisional certificate, and I had my own classroom the following fall, and that’s how I got into it. And so I wasn’t expecting to do it, but I really, I loved it. You know, I loved it for a lot of reasons.
Scott: And how long did you do that before you went to law school?
Molly: Five years.
Scott: Okay. So, five years you did that, and were you working with that particular population for the entire five years? Did you move to something else?
Molly: Yes. So, I was always special ed, I was always behavior disorders, for the most part. Occasionally in my class, I would have a little bit of variety, I might have some autistic students, some students who had more learning disabilities. But, really, my main focus and the kids that I was inherently attracted to were those that were diagnosed as having a behavior disorder.
Scott: I see. And I’m going to ask you this, and I think probably we’re going to have to backtrack a little bit. I know you obviously decided to go to law school, what motivated your decision to go to law school after five years of teaching?
Molly: Well, probably a couple of things. I love academics, you know, I love school. School has always been a sanctuary for me in many ways, and I do very well in a school environment. And so part of me thought, you know, I do want to go to graduate school, and my husband at the time, had earned his Ph.D., and it looked very easy compared to what I was doing, and I wanted to go back to school. And I think, honestly, the first time I started thinking about law, I mean, I knew that I was good at reading and writing, and Georgia Tech had been very hard for me. I mean, it’s hard for everybody, but I knew maybe reading and writing was something that I should pursue on the graduate level. But with special ed, you have IDEA, the Individuals with Disabilities Educational Act, and you have Section 504, and you write these IEPs, these Individualized Education Plans for your students. And it was so heavily legal. And I just felt like an advocate, I felt like I was going to these meetings, and I was standing up for these kids. And I started thinking, you know, this is a good first foray into maybe what it feels like to interpret provisions of the law and make arguments and stand up for the marginalized, right? Those who are being accused of being bad. And so I think that honestly, was what made me very much seriously consider law school. But ultimately, I just said, “Well, if I can get a full ride, I’ll go, and if not, I won’t.” So, I did.
Scott: You got a full ride. And it sounds like your heart for the marginalized, obviously, was there because you took a Georgia Tech degree, and you taught in a very challenging environment for five years, and so there must have been that motive to go and do that even.
Molly: Yeah, I think Georgia Tech… Well, I wanted to escape the bohemian lifestyle that I had existed in for the first 18 years of my life. And so Georgia Tech was a good solution, and, you know, it was free as well. But I liked it because it was so challenging, it was such a hard, difficult school, it was so rigorous. And so I enjoyed it. But I could never be like a scientist in a lab, and I couldn’t not be around people. And yes, I think ultimately, I wanted to help people. And so that’s what I did.
Scott: Well, you’ve mentioned that now, you’ve mentioned the bohemian lifestyle that you lived for the first 18 years. And I think I’ve read some social media postings. There’s a big part of your early childhood, in your family life, that I think also motivated you to want to be a lawyer. And I wanted to talk a little bit about that. And first of all, your dad was Skip Williamson, is that right?
Molly: Mm-hmm. Guilty as charged, yes.
Scott: And I know that you’ve done some postings about this. I think you said something on Father’s Day about it even and you posted some pictures. And before I kind of go into who he was, I know that he had some involvement in “The Chicago 8 Trial.” And just give the listeners who weren’t aware, who haven’t seen the Netflix movie about it, and who haven’t read about it. What was “The Chicago 8 Trial” and what was its significance in the civil… not really the civil rights movement, but maybe the civil rights, the anti-war movement? And what does “The Chicago 8 Trial” sort of stand for? Is one of the most famous trials in American, I would say, it’s probably one of the most famous trials in American history.
Molly: Right. Well, you know, for me, my parents were hardcore hippies, and they never let go of those ideals, even as they were raising children in the ’80s, and the ’90s. I mean, they are straight from the late ’60s. And for me, that rhetoric, and that ethos, and that philosophy was what they raised me on. And so what was so symbolic was that in 1968, in Chicago, you know, we had the Democratic National Convention, and we had these groups of young people that were so vehemently anti-war. And they had been assembling against the war in Vietnam, and they had been taking to the streets to protest police brutality and the same things that we see repeated 50 years later and they were supporting civil rights and desegregation. And they were the youth and they were sick of seeing their friends come home, having been drafted to fight a war that they thought was meaningless, and come home, essentially in a box.
And so, my dad was very involved. He was in Chicago at the time. And he was a little older. He was 24. And so I think he was seen as a bit of a leader when he was very close with Abbie Hoffman, who was the founder of the Youth International Party, which were called the Yippies. My dad was also a Yippie. And there was, like, an element of humor, right? So, my dad’s a cartoonist, he’s an artist and…
Scott: And Abbie Hoffman was a comedian.
Molly: And Abbie Hoffman was a comedian. And, you know, they came to the… they wanted to nominate a pig president named Pigasus. And so it was, like, farcical, like, it was kind of a joke, but there was something serious about it. They thought the politicians didn’t have their best interests at heart, and neither did the police, and they were going to stand up and they were going to fight against it. So, then you have these student groups, led by people like Bobby Seale from “The Black Panthers” and The White Panthers that my dad was a part of, and Abbie Hoffman and the Yippies. And they took to the streets, and ultimately, were arrested and charged with federal incitement of a riot, crossing state lines with the intent to incite a riot. And then they had a trial, that my dad attended every single day of. He wasn’t arrested, but he did courtroom sketches of everybody involved and then did a comic book called “Conspiracy Papers” to raise money for their defense.
Scott: So, I envision this, you know, whenever you see, you know, since the cameras are still not allowed in federal court, and you see these courtroom sketches on the news or whatever, anybody that’s ever had a federal case that’s been covered by the news, probably has one of these hanging up in their office. You think of the courtroom sketch artist, your dad was basically doing, I guess, an offbeat or irreverent or satirical version of that, as part of covering the Chicago 8 Trial.
Molly: Exactly. Yes. His was not the…
Scott: The traditional…
Molly: The courtroom sketch, right? I just got my federal courtroom sketch and I was representing a rioter at the Capitol. But this courtroom sketch that my dad was doing was, you know, it was a comic, he was making comics, and he drew every single person in the courtroom. And it’s funny to see them, I think, you know, it’s supposed to be grotesque and exaggerated, but there is a little bit of truth. And they all look a little bit to me like who they were, but he drew the bailiff and the judge and the lawyers and all the defendants and he sat there every single day. And then I think after that he had a certain view of the criminal justice system that he imparted on me as well.
Scott: So, for those who don’t know, what were some of the characteristics of this trial, and maybe talk about it from the way the judge was in this trial?
Molly: Well, I think it was very unjust. I think it was incredibly unfair. And I think that the prosecution and the judge were coming down hard on these defendants. And I think Bobby Seale, in particular, his situation was incredibly tragic. His lawyer wasn’t there for a lot of the trial, if not all of it, and he tried to make a record but they just trampled on through it. There wasn’t consideration of fairness and equity, and…
Scott: I think the judge tried to make counselor stand in as Bobby Seale’s lawyer, and he wouldn’t let Seale talk, he wouldn’t give him a continuance. And then counselor would object to serving as counsel and this was something that just sort of happened throughout the course of the trial, this was just sort of a repeating farce. And I think, ultimately, Bobby Seale was bound and gagged and led out of the courtroom. And think he got severed out from the rest of the trial, at some point, I’m thinking.
Molly: Yeah. And, you know, I just think that it’s the kind of thing… I mean, yes, on some level, it was a lot of drama. I know that Abbie Hoffman was naturally a dramatic, as you said, he was a stand-up comic. And so, of course, there was some performance element. But the idea that these individuals who were arrested for the federal offense of conspiracy to incite a riot, were ever going to receive a fair trial in that courtroom? It wasn’t going to happen.
Scott: And so growing up was this kind of part of the family story, is this… How much was this talked about? I mean, I know you said that they were hippies the entire time you were growing up, they never let go of that identity and ethos, but what was it like growing up? And what do you think some experiences you had were that maybe led to you being a criminal defense attorney at some point?
Molly: Yeah, I think for my dad, he was incredibly anti-authoritarian. They didn’t have behavior disorders when he was a kid, but he would have been diagnosed as having one. That’s true. I think that this was the culmination of a lot of things he already felt this being 1968 in Chicago, he was ready to stand up against police and the powers that be and that’s how he was. And so he had tattooed on his arm, “Smash the state.” And that was his slogan. And so I was raised from… you know, I was very little, and yet I was being told, you know, don’t trust authority, don’t trust police, laws are different than morality, rules are different than morality. He was very anti-censorship. Like, we were supposed to be using all words in all language. And so he was just a very different approach to life than you usually hear when you’re like five-years-old. So, I think that shapes you in a way that I look back and I’m like, “Oh, well, it all makes sense why I do what I do,” but it’s deep. It runs deep.
Scott: Yeah, we grow up, we grow up with, I guess, the Richard Scarry books where you have pictures of nice, friendly policemen and police cars. And the police come to your school and give you stickers and you get to tour the police car. You were raised with “smash the state” on your dad’s body in a tattoo?
Molly: Yeah. And then when the DARE program would come to school, my parents would take me out of it, they would tell me I couldn’t attend because they said it was entrapment. So, I don’t know. Like, I never went to the DARE program. So, yeah. I mean, it was totally different than I think most kids my age. And I wanted a little bit to be a conformist. I was kind of, like, hey, guys… Maybe it’s not all bad, maybe we should trust the authority figures sometimes, but that was not the message being imparted to me, at least.
Scott: Well, I guess that’s interesting, because when you hit your years of teenage rebellion if your household idea is “smash the state” and nonconformity. I suppose your form of rebellion would be the join the young Republicans or embrace conformity, at some point.
Molly: A hundred percent. So, for me, all I wanted… You know, the other flip side of this is that my parents because they were bohemian and they were artists, we had no money. And so we were in poverty, like, real American poverty, and they didn’t care, but I certainly did. And I was like, “Hey, can I just have a backpack like my friends have, or some shoes like my friends have.” You know, I wanted to conform so badly in middle school, in high school. I wanted to dress like everybody else and have a nice house like everybody else, and a car like everybody else. And even a computer, I didn’t have a computer. And, you know, just the basics, I wanted a CD player, and we didn’t have these things. And so, yeah. So, 100% I wanted to conform and my rebellion was saying, “No, you know, I don’t think it’s great that we’re all sitting here in poverty for the sake of fighting man.” No, I didn’t like that.
Scott: But your dad had, I mean, beyond just “The Chicago 8 Trial,” I mean, he was a very famous cartoonist. I’ve done some research on him, I’ve read his obituary, I’ve read “The Comics Journal,” I’ve got a quotation here, “Skip Williamson is still the quintessential underground comics artist. Where Robert Crumb’s primary comics aim was introspective, Williamson took a broader look, securing both left-wing trendiness and right-wing overreaction at a time of much-publicized left-wing trendiness. Crumb’s approach may have been more artistically legitimate but to those struggling to make sense of the socio-political chaos, Williamson was frequently the funnier.” So, it sounds to me like he was also deeply suspicious of even hippie themes that he was as suspicious of the left as he was of the right.
Molly: Absolutely. He would not consider himself on either side. I think he thought that the leftists were, he was using the word elitist before people these days started to use it to describe people on the left. So, yes, I think that’s true. And the other thing about Skip is that he was really smart. And his dad was a Ph.D. and a professor of philosophy. And so he was really insightful and kind of brilliant, even though he was also making fun of anybody and everybody on a very deep socio-political way. So, he’s smart. And I think when you are that smart, you’re not really going to be part of anybody’s group.
Scott: So, if he were active in today’s politics, or in today’s legal system, if he were around for masks, and the Alt-right, the Stop the Steal movement, but also around for, I guess, wokeness trends in the left, where do you think he would fall in today’s politics?
Molly: Well, he has always considered himself an anarchist, so nowhere. He’s apolitical, he’s not… and this is always how he would be, so he would find something wrong with both sides. I think it’s one thing that… You know, he passed away in 2017, and he would have probably done some great caricatures of some of the people that are at the forefront of politics these days. So, that’s too bad. But he would not align with either, he wouldn’t like the wokeness, he wouldn’t like the Stop the Steal movement, but he would find some humor in both of it, I think.
Scott: So, we’ll fast forward, we’ll go back to where we were, you’re at the end of teaching and you’ve decided to go to law school. And I think you said some of it was intellectual curiosity that you wanted to be in school, and I think some of it was a heart for the oppressed. How do you think growing up with who your dad was in the household you grew up in, how do you think it informed your decision to go to law school, and then maybe the way you were as a law student, and then maybe also the way that you practice as a lawyer now?
Molly: Well, I gotta say, you know, my mom, she was very smart, too. She is very smart. She very much encouraged me. I don’t think my dad really wanted me to go to law school or cared very much that I was a lawyer, I think he really didn’t believe in any of that. I think he thought that it’s all construct, and lawyers are part of the problem. So, he wasn’t really that interested in me going to law school and didn’t have much to say about it. I think my mom considered going to law school herself many years ago, never did anything like that. But for her, I think and for my dad, I do think the idea was that it is a way to empower yourself and educate yourself. And it’s important to stand up for those who otherwise don’t have a voice.
But I think that ultimately, a big part of it for me was figuring out my place in a world that I had not been exposed to. So, it was a little bit less about my parents. After my first year, I was like, “I don’t know if I should even be here.” And I considered dropping out because a lot of people wanted to go into corporate jobs or big law, and I thought that was the most horrible thing I’d ever heard. And the fact that people really wanted to do that left me very confused. And so I was gonna just withdraw after my first year. I just didn’t know anything about being a lawyer. Yeah, I felt like I should maybe consider a [inaudible 00:22:18] career, but at the same time, I just felt so out of place. So, if anything, that’s what having parents like mine did. It made me feel really, really out of place in a private law school environment.
Scott: But what made you stick through? What made you hang with it after when you were considering dropping out and not doing that?
Molly: Well, you know, it’s an interesting story. I actually was kind of considering, well, maybe I’ll do something in patent law, I have this Georgia Tech background, or maybe I’ll do something… I was very open-minded. I wasn’t thinking criminal defense necessarily. I was just taking all the standard first-year classes and trying to think if I… I liked con law, you know, I like to evidence but I wasn’t really putting it together. I didn’t have a good framework. And so I told [inaudible 00:23:04] speaking to my professors because I love school, and I love professors. And so I spoke to some and I said, “Listen, I think I’m gonna withdraw, it’s just not working for me, and I don’t identify with these people.” And ultimately, they connected me with a professor Barbara Woodhouse, who clerked for the Supreme Court and she taught a kind of a weird, she was a hippie who had grown up without indoor plumbing in the mountains. And she gave me a copy of “The Glass Castle” by Jeannette Walls, which is a book about a girl who ends up in kind of corporate New York, even though she grew up with bohemian poverty-stricken parents. And this woman had clerked for the Supreme Court, and she was very encouraging. And the book resonated with me, so I kind of stuck it out. And then another professor, Julie Seaman, said, “Why don’t you look into the Georgia Innocence Project for an internship, just try something different.” And that was my first exposure to criminal defense. So, I did that internship. And I’ve been involved with that organization now for over 10 years. I’m on their executive board. And after I spent my semester there, I changed my whole schedule. I wanted to be a public defender. I became a public defender right after law school and it kind of set my trajectory to where I am today.
Scott: And which public defender’s office did you start off in?
Scott: DeKalb? Were you assigned to a particular judge in DeKalb?
Molly: Yes. Well, for DeKalb, for my first summer, I was with Daryl Queen and Scott DePlonty in Division 10, which is Judge Barry. And I got to try a murder and that was amazing, and we won. And then when I started as a brand new baby public defender, I did intake, so I was doing all the jail interviews and all the bond hearings and then ultimately, moved through, you know, you do traffic court, and then you do state court misdemeanors, I had my courtroom there. And then in state court, I was with Judge Johnny Panos. And then I ended up in my own courtroom in felony court with Judge Asha Jackson. So, I got to do a lot. It was great.
Scott: Yeah, Panos probably would have been a fun assignment. I haven’t been in front of him in a while.
Molly: I loved it. Me neither.
Scott: He’s great.
Molly: I can’t wait to see him again.
Scott: Yeah. He is great. But what was it like being a public defender, particularly when you got into the serious felony pace? Because, I mean, you’re thrown basically into the deep end of the pool, and you have to learn to swim.
Molly: Yeah, I thought it was great. I love to be thrown into the deep end of the pool and wonder if I’m going to swim or not. I love that. I think because of how my life has been. It’s been so unpredictable, and at times scary. And I thrive in that kind of environment. I feel very brave, you know, I’m not afraid of anything. And so for me… You know, the first case I [inaudible 00:25:45] a murder. And so, you know, I wasn’t overwhelmed. I thought this is what I’m supposed to be doing. And the other thing about DeKalb, public defender’s office is the camaraderie is incredible. My co-workers were incredible. We had such a bond, you’re never doing anything alone, you’re always doing it with pretty much the whole office. And that’s how you do it. That’s how you get through when you have a family, which is your co-workers. That’s how you handle the difficult stuff. And so there was always somebody to ask questions to and run ideas by. It was very collaborative. And that’s what made it, I think, really manageable. I mean, yeah, the caseload is crushing, and that was something that I struggled with. But besides that, there was a lot of really good things about that job.
Scott: How long were you with the DeKalb PD’s office?
Molly: Just two and a half years.
Scott: Two and a half years? And how many cases do you think you jury tried in two and a half years as a public defender in DeKalb?
Molly: Well, probably not too many, maybe about three felonies, and then three or four misdemeanors, but then I had been in traffic court for about seven months out of those two and a half years.
Scott: You need to try probably dozens if not more.
Molly: Dozens. Right. Right. Right. So, you know, maybe the total… Those weren’t jury trials in traffic court, but the total was like hovering right around 10, maybe between 8 and 10 when I left.
Scott: And for those who aren’t in Georgia, DeKalb County is Decatur, Georgia, and some other cities, and so I think some of Atlanta, but it’s basically the next biggest court system probably in Georgia. It’s right next to Atlanta. So, it’s a big metro Atlanta, borderline downtown, not downtown Atlanta, but basically an Atlanta court system. Do I describe that accurately?
Molly: You did. And yes, it is, you deal with real city crime. That is what DeKalb County has. Absolutely.
Scott: And so you then move from there to the federal defender’s offices. Is that in the Northern District of Georgia?
Scott: Okay. So, for those who don’t know what the federal defender is, talk about the federal defender and sort of compare and contrast it to your general Metropolitan, you know, big city PD’s office?
Molly: Right. So, the federal defender, we are still public defenders, we represent those who cannot afford counsel when charged with federal crimes. But what often happens in the federal system, is that most people cannot afford counsel, because it’s very, very expensive to hire a federal defense attorney. And so I’ve represented doctors and lawyers, just a very different clientele than I did in the public defender in the county. We also handle different types of crime, you have to have that interstate nexus. So, that means that the crime has to involve something that essentially involves more than one state.
So, it could be a gun, because a gun is made in one place and then shipped to another place. It could be drugs because the idea is that drugs are moving all over throughout all the states and the countries. It could be an immigration offense, it could be a wire fraud case because you’re using a computer, which is also why we have child pornography cases that we handle. It could be something international, it could be a racketeering, a conspiracy, gang case.
And anything, there’s always strange ones too. There’s a wide variety of federal…anything could be a federal crime. So, the nature of the cases and the charges are different, the clientele is different, and also the pace, like, when you’re in court, you don’t have a crowded docket, you just have an appointment, you, your client, the judge, opposing counsel, it runs very smoothly. It’s very heavy on briefing and research. It’s just an entirely different environment. And the other thing in terms of my office is that we were very well-funded. So, I hired experts for any case that I wanted to, and we would have money to go to any training that we wanted to and my caseload hovered at about 25 at any given time, so you’re able to do… I mean, I truly believe that that office is doing the best, “Indigent defense” that can possibly be done.
Scott: And particularly in some smaller federal circuits and smaller districts, it may start to resemble more of what it’s like to practice in state court. But in a place like the Northern District of Georgia, generally, if the U.S. Attorney’s Office is going to indict the case, they’re only going to take it and deal with it if it’s big, they’re generally going to dump smaller cases on to DA’s offices, and they tend to want to indict things that are sure things. And my sense for the difference between the federal and the state system is that, generally, it’s a higher quality of investigation. Generally, by the time they’re indicting, there are exceptions, they’ve been beaten. But generally, when they put the case together, the U.S. Attorney’s Office generally puts it together well.
Molly: That is true. And also the difference is that with the feds, they’re going to investigate you for years, you won’t know it, and by the time the Marshals come or the agents come and arrest you, they already have everything. Whereas in the state system, an officer or a police will arrest you, and then the DA kind of builds their case and investigates. With the federal system, at your arraignment, your very first appearance, the U.S. Attorney turns to you and says, “Here’s all your discovery, and it’s a terabyte, and they’ve been watching you for years.”
Scott: They’ve let you commit crimes, they’ve watched you do it. You may have even left that lifestyle behind and moved on, thinking that you’ve left it all behind, and it comes back for you.
Scott: One day you’re leaving your gym or your dry cleaner, and you’re put into a black SUV.
Molly: A hundred percent correct. That’s how it is.
Scott: And then you’re in front of a federal magistrate that afternoon or the next morning and you’re meeting Molly Parmer, who’s your federal defender?
Molly: Yeah. That’s how it goes, if you’re lucky. Yeah.
Scott: So, what was that like? What was the experience of being a federal defender like for you?
Molly: So, the learning curve was incredibly steep, you have to know the code sections in and out, you have to be up on your research, and you have to know the U.S. sentencing guidelines. And even the procedure, the Rules of Procedure are totally different. So, again, here I am, being thrown into the deep end and seeing if I can swim, but swimming is requiring far more intellectual gymnastics than it has in the past. But again, I had really good support in the office and good mentors, and good training. But the only way you learn how to do anything is by doing it. And so I basically feel like I learned a foreign language during my time there, I got to handle so many cases and really dig into them and take them from the point of arrest, all the way to 11th circuit oral argument and learn the U.S. sentencing guidelines backwards and forwards, and how to deal with federal judges and federal prosecutors. And the role of U.S. probation is so peculiar to me still in the federal system. And so it was a learning curve, to say the least.
Scott: Well, say a little bit more for those who don’t know about the guidelines? You know, in the state system, when you plea bargain, you’re plea bargaining with your district attorney. Your district attorney, you know, your crime, whatever the crime is, like if it’s Agg assault, your range of punishment’s 1 to 20. You and your DA if you’re going to plead the case out, and you have a pretty good understanding of your judge, and your guy doesn’t have any criminal history and so the DEA may say to you, “I’ll offer you two to serve with eight to be served on probation.” And that’s a done deal, you know, unless, for whatever reason, the judge rejects the offer. And you generally have a sense for your judge. And this is kind of what you see on television, there’s an offer, you either take it or you don’t take it, you go to court, and you’re going to plead and you’re going to get sentenced right there, and you know you’re going to get 10 to 2. Talk about how it’s different in the federal system?
Molly: Well, in the federal system, you do, of course, have sometimes a mandatory minimum, or maybe you don’t, and then you have a stat max. So, we do have a range, of course of years, that you could be subject to incarceration, but that doesn’t really matter. What matters is this magical book called “The U.S. Sentencing Guidelines.” And in this book, they have taken every federal crime and broken it down into a little subsection that addresses the nature of the offense, and you add points, right?
So, let’s say that you were making fake passports and you make only 10 fake passports, okay, you get a couple points, but if you made 25, then you’re gonna get four or five points. I mean, I’m just making this up. But you get all these points that get added up, and then you go on this grid, and you figure out your criminal history, and which category you’re in and then you go on the grid and you go on your x-axis and your y-axis and after figuring out this convoluted, as I would call it, fake math, as somebody who went to Georgia Tech and knows real math, this is some fake math. And then you just find where you are on the grid, and that is your advisory sentencing range. And so in any case, you have to figure that out, that’s really what your potential sentencing exposure is. And it comes about through this very complicated calculation from a very complicated book.
Scott: And that’s not just so the listeners know, that’s not done between you and the prosecutor. I mean, the prosecutor, kind of, he has a role, but really, you’re not completely blind, because you have the guidelines book. But after you enter your plea, your case is then turned over to a probation officer. And then that probation officer is going to interview your client and your probation officer is going to file a report where the probation officer recommends a sentencing range. And very often we are surprised by things that come up in that part of the process that you and the U.S. attorney maybe didn’t anticipate. I mean, ideally, you can foresee some things, you can sort of see down the road, but I’ve had experiences with the federal probation officers hit me with some things that were shocking, to say the least.
Molly: Absolutely. That’s exactly right. So, after you enter the plea, in state court, you just go straight into getting a sentence. But in federal court, you enter a plea and a lawyer, your lawyer should have prepared you for what this report is going to say as best they possibly can. But until you meet with U.S. probation, and until they prepare that report with their version of the guidelines, you really don’t know what’s going to go to the judge in advance of sentencing. And so then when they give you and your client this report, so much of the work that we did was just fighting that report and objecting to all of the enhancements or these points that they say apply when you don’t think they should, and the criminal history calculation and everything else in between, I mean, that’s the nuance. That’s the work. That’s what federal criminal defense is all about.
Scott: I think the real trial, generally, because there are very few federal trials anymore. I think the real trial is what takes place between when you enter your guilty plea and when you come back for that sentencing hearing. I mean, that’s where the trial is because you’re also, you’re preparing a sentencing memorandum, and you’re bringing in mitigation, but you’re also fighting this guideline. So, to me, that always feels like the… I mean, I’ve done some federal jury trials, but that always has felt like to me the trial in a federal case.
Molly: I totally agree. I mean, there are sentencings that feel just like a trial. I’ve had a three-day sentencing, it was a very contested report from the probation officer, and there were a lot of witnesses. And we went on for three days, calling witnesses and making arguments, and essentially starting with an opening and ending with a closing. But I think you’re completely right, in federal court, a sentencing is the trial. And sometimes the only… I mean, you’re right, for the vast majority of federal cases, do not go to trial, but they all end in this very intensive exhaustive sentencing hearing.
Scott: And how long were you with the federal defender before you went into the private practice?
Molly: About five years?
Scott: What did you enjoy the most about being a federal defender? And what were the things that you just didn’t like at all?
Molly: Well, I was very supported by my office, you know, I had great support staff, I was able to hire any expert that I wanted to hire, we were incredibly well-funded. So, I’m defending people that can’t afford a lawyer and they’re getting just an incredible level of defense. And so you feel like you’re definitely doing the best you can, you always feel like you’re giving it your all and there’s not like a financial barrier between you and what you really see as the ideal defense. I also liked, you know, it’s very manageable, it’s very respectful. You go into the courtroom, and it’s beautiful, and it’s not crowded with people and feeling as though there’s just a cattle call and everyone’s being treated inhumanely, just simply by virtue of the fact they’ve been accused of a crime. I think my clients were more respected, or at least they felt that way because of how the court handles things. And I had a good relationship with the court security officers and my co-workers and I was able to really, really forge deep, deep relationships with my clients because I didn’t have a huge caseload. And so I got to know them and go to their homes and meet their family and most of them are still in my life because I was only handling a few at a time. So, those things really made it truly ideal.
Scott: The courtrooms look like the courtrooms on the lawyer TV shows, and you’re treated like… I mean, when you go into federal court, you feel like you’re a real lawyer and you really do feel like you’re doing something in rarefied air and [inaudible 00:39:53]. I’ve felt that before.
Molly: Yeah. I mean, it’s just feeding the ego. But I think the same thing goes for, like, I said, you know, it’s treating… The clients feel like they’re not just being processed, there is some attention being paid to them because they’re the only ones in the room. And so I think that that’s good. But yeah, it does feed the ego of it, too.
Scott: Absolutely. And that’s all lawyers need is to feed the ego a little bit more.
Molly: Oh, gosh. I know. I know.
Scott: But what didn’t you like about it? What were some frustrations?
Molly: Well, you know, ultimately, I left. Well, I was very… I don’t know why they hired me. I mean, they were… I don’t know why they hired me. It’s an office that was very established, and most people had been there for 20-plus years, and they were much older than me, and they had much more experience than me, and they were at very different points in their life. So, here I come. And I’m very social. And I had come from an office that had excellent camaraderie, and happy hours, and everyone’s getting together and everyone’s best friends. And then I felt a little bit alone. I didn’t really have people to go have a drink with after work. And I was young, I was the youngest, and I don’t deal well being the baby. I don’t think I ever was a baby. I feel like growing up, I was the adult. So, I didn’t like feeling like I was kind of juvenile compared to everybody else. And I was, but that was just again, the ego thing, I guess. So, for me, some of those dynamics made me feel a little bit lost at times. And then the other thing is, you know, the guidelines can be so frustrating. It’s like some of these just seems…
Scott: They’re crushing.
Molly: Yeah, it’s a construct. I mean, things like… And then there’s other concepts in federal law, like the modified categorical approach, and is this a crime of violence or is it not? And you get so deeply mired in this bizarre analysis, and so far from the meaning of any of it, and you start to feel sometimes, like, it’s almost too academic, and just not real. So, I struggled with that too.
Scott: Well, real-life things are sort of broken down into these arbitrary categories. My favorite was always the weed conversion. You know that…?
Molly: Yes. Yes.
Scott: So, talk about the…
Molly: I talked…Yes. Yes.
Scott: Talk about the weed conversion into the federal sense of that.
Molly: It’s my favorite thing, too. I was just talking about this last night. Okay. So, in federal court, oftentimes, you’re dealing with people that are trafficking large amounts of…as in it’s a variety of substances. So, here we are in the guidelines, and we have to figure out their penalty or their potential sentencing exposure by using the guidelines, so we need to add the points. Well, how do we add the points if this client was trafficking in both fentanyl and cocaine and heroin and marijuana and ecstasy? Well, what do we do? We have to convert all the drugs in the case to a common denominator. And federal sentencing guidelines decided that the common denominator is weed, it’s marijuana. And so you convert all your drugs to weed, and I was sitting here, when I was first told this, I was like, “I’m sorry. You cannot convert heroin to weed, you can’t convert cocaine to weed.” So, there’s a way you do it. They give you a chart and you change all of the drugs to weed. And so it’s like one gram of heroin is like 50 kilos of marijuana or something. I don’t know. But it’s just so ridiculous. They actually changed that a couple years ago, and now we have the drug equivalency unit. But before that, you were doing a calculation, changing all your drugs to weed.
Scott: A buddy of mine called that the reefer conversion.
Molly: Yes. It is a trip. I don’t understand. I mean, it’s so insane. But you have to do it. You’re preparing for your case, and you’re like, “All right, where am I now in my litigation? Oh, it’s time to convert all my drugs to weed, okay.” All right.
Scott: Right. So, yeah, well, you get elements of tragedy from a person’s life, and it’s converted to some… None of these things are objective. I mean, what the guidelines try to do, I think is very epistemologically unsound. because you’re talking about very subjective concepts, and you’re trying to render things objective that don’t lend themselves to objectivity. And I think that’s probably if I’m hearing you, that’s probably part of what the frustration was.
Molly: I think you’re 100% right. That’s it.
Scott: It’s like when you go to law school and you learn the turn fact pattern, you know, and so what’s the fact pattern? Well, a person coming to you who’s just been arrested, or a person who’s coming to you who’s just been convicted of something and they’re looking to you to try to overturn the conviction or even in the domestic realm, who’s getting a divorce or someone who’s suing somebody, no one comes to see you because something great happened in their lives. So, for law school to teach you that what you’re about to hear from that client is a fact pattern, you know, maybe your dad’s right. I mean, that’s part of the problem too. Is the way we… I mean, in a way, it’s a gift, the way we talk about things as lawyers because I do think it gives us an ability to problem solve that… You know, had I never been a lawyer, I think the notion of thinking like a lawyer is something that’s very helpful to me. But, on the other hand, there’s something dehumanizing about the terminology, and the way law is practiced.
Molly: I totally…
Scott: And I think never more so than in the federal sentencing guidelines.
Molly: I totally agree. I think you’re spot on. And you’re right. I mean, it’s not a fact pattern, it’s not a guidelines calculation, it’s a human life in crises, in turmoil. You know, that’s what it really is.
Scott: Even the way sentence is pronounced in months, is odd. Because when you’re not expressing a sentence in years, it doesn’t sound as bad, like a 30-year sentence expressed in months for whatever reason doesn’t sound as bad. And so even the whole month part of the guidelines is oddly disarming in a way that it probably shouldn’t be.
Molly: Yeah. I’ve never thought about that, but I think that’s spot on, 100%.
Scott: So, talk about private practice. So at this point, you’ve been a teacher for five years, you’ve been a law student, you’ve been a PD for about two and a half years. So, you’ve been in your law journey now for… well, you’ve been in your career journey for a long time, and you’ve been on your law journey now for if you don’t include law school, about seven and a half years, you go into private practice, talk about your decision to go into private practice and what that’s been like?
Molly: Well, I mean, I do think that, again, at the fault of my parents, I am very independent, I’m very much just a free spirit. And I’m surprised that I had a government job for as long as I did, both with the public schools and then with the public defenders. I’ve always wanted to do my own thing and march to my own beat and be my own boss. I was lucky to have incredible bosses, you know, just really incredible and female bosses. So, I never felt, I have no complaints. But there was still part of me that wanted the buck to stop with me and to just be myself.
And the other thing is that because I never had parents that had corporate jobs, like, I was intrigued, like, what is running a business? How do we run a business? And I thought I could do it, and guess what? I can. So, I had made a plan, I had a very long-term plan to do this. And really, I thought I was really prepared. I knew how serious it was to launch a law firm, and I knew what I wanted to do and how I wanted to do it and had already mapped it all out. And it happened, I think, in a very thoughtful, deliberate way. As a result, I think has been very successful. But it wasn’t something that I was just going to do capriciously, or without any forethought. I really planned it out, and I continue to plan it out and work on my firm as much as I practice law every single day.
Scott: If you were advising someone who was about to, given the way you long term planned, if you were advising someone who was about to leave a government job to go into private practice, or maybe live a big firm to launch their own practice, what are some things that you did that you thought helped make you successful?
Molly: Well, I think my whole life I’ve thought about money very differently than most people. So, like, with law school, like I just was not going to go into debt for law school, it just didn’t make sense to me. And I live a very simple life, I’m a very simple girl. I don’t spend a lot of money, I’m very good at saving money. And so I saved all my money. And so really, I didn’t… You know, I saved just a ton of money. And I live in a very simple house and live well beneath my means, always have. And so there wasn’t a huge financial pressure, there was no financial pressure whatsoever when I launched my firm, and I was able to spend more on the business. And that’s something you have to consider, you can’t just expect to make… I mean, you can, I mean, you do make a lot of money in private practice, but I think it’s good to start off with some resources that you can spend on the business itself.
Because I do think that you need to be conscientious of marketing and branding, and how are you going to launch your firm? And what space are you going to be in? And how are you going to grow? And how are you going to expand? All of those business things that even though I had never been exposed to them, truly did come naturally to me, almost as naturally as being in the courtroom. And so it’s been a really good fit. I think about the business constantly. I think about goals for the business. I map it out in terms of quarters. I keep incredible records, and I have good systems and I have good help. But I think you have to really think deeply about all of that and not just what I originally said, which is, “Hey, I get to be my own boss and do my own thing.” It’s so much deeper than that. And ultimately, it’s a ton of work. You know, you have to love it. I do love it. I truly do.
Scott: I could hear it. I can hear it when you talk about it.
Scott: So, how do clients find you? And I’m assuming your practice is predominantly federal criminal defense. I think that’s what you said earlier?
Molly: Yes. I consider it just high stakes cases are mostly federal, but I don’t do like traffic court, or misdemeanors, or DUIs. And I’ve just kind of marketed myself like that, and it’s worked out. But I get a lot of clients from knowing the federal courthouse inside and out. I’m kind of the go-to. Well, I mean, there are some older people that do federal, sorry, sorry, to those older people who are listening. I don’t mean it, that they’re just older.
Scott: They are young at heart.
Molly: There’s not a lot of…Yeah, those young at heart people. I kind of knew that I could market myself as, “Hey, this woman knows federal court inside and out.” And so I get a lot of cases from the federal defenders, oftentimes, they send somebody to me, people that know me from the federal courthouse. Other lawyers that know me, but don’t practice in federal court say, “Hey, this guy called me, but it’s a federal case.” And then also just kind of marketing, I like to put myself out there and talk about my job, and people eventually start listening and paying attention to you. And I do love attention if I’m being honest. So, I just kind of put myself out there, and then people respond.
Scott: And that’s part of your branding as well, for sure?
Molly: Yeah. I mean, I think people like it. But I take all my photos myself, you know, I do all of it myself. I mean, I work with a great marketing agency, I’ll give them a shout-out. It’s Green Cardigan Marketing. And so they do a lot of stuff for me as well. But in terms of the Instagram, I just take photos myself, I have a little tripod, I set a timer on my phone, and I take pictures of myself going about my day. And then I think of like captions that to me are more, like, you know, it’s like a photo diary. Like, I just confess that my deepest thoughts and feelings, and then I just put it out for the world to read.
Scott: But it really is kind of like a vlog…
Scott: …told through still photos. And it’s generally like you’re always at places I recognize. It’s always, you know, I know that parking lot, or I know that courthouse, or I know that’s… I know, generally the setting. So, I know, just being a lawyer kind of walking some of those steps that you’re taking the mundane, and you’re sort of, making it into a story with photographs.
Molly: Yeah. Thanks. Well, you should start taking a little tripod to these places and photographing yourself, too. I’d recommend it to anybody.
Scott: Molly, I don’t know if the world is ready for that, I think. But tell me how you’ve been getting through COVID? How you’ve kind of just been surviving all this?
Molly: I’ve loved it. No, I don’t mean to say that because I don’t want to make light of all the suffering. It’s truly a time that I know people have had just an incredibly difficult go of it. But for me, it’s been really different for a number of reasons. So, I set up my law firm with the idea that I wanted to be… I have an office, but for the most part, I wanted to have a home office, I wanted to be very remote and virtual. And so that’s worked out really great. I already had all my systems in place and great technology in place to do all of that. And the other thing, I think a big thing is that I am one of those we call ourselves, I guess childfree by choice. And so I haven’t gone through the difficulty of trying to work a difficult job and homeschool children. So, I don’t have kids. And I do have an incredibly supportive husband who is an expert in contagious respiratory disease, so.
Scott: Oh, well perfect. You were ready for COVID, then.
Molly: Well, you know, I think one of the biggest things is that, you know, my husband and I, we really love each other, and we have such a great marriage. And then when all of this happened, and we were at home, we both already had our dedicated home offices. But in addition to having a great home life, he knew what was going on. And so I could ask questions that I think most people couldn’t get the answers to. And as a result, were really scared last year, you know, when this first hit in March and April. I think a lot of people didn’t know how these types of diseases spread or what we could expect or what’s the next step or what are we going to do. And he knows all of this.
So, it was really interesting. I don’t think I lived in fear in a way that other people did. Of course, I was mindful and we take precautions and we take it very seriously. But I wasn’t concerned like, “Can I go outside?” Right? You know, this was something that he was knowledgeable about. So, I think at one point, he was on the COVID response. He was a team lead and high up at the CDC. And that was a very difficult time he was working like 15 hours a day, every single day for a month straight. But besides that, when he’s back at his regular position, which is tuberculosis at the CDC, we’ve lived a very manageable life during this time, and honestly, have enjoyed, kind of, slowing down a bit and being more at home with each other. We also play music, so we wrote an EP, that’s the other thing we did. We wrote an EP during this time. That’s a fun little hobby. But, yeah. As a former school teacher, I really feel for all of my friends and colleagues that are trying to figure out how you educate a child at home and work a job. I don’t know how they’re doing it. But I have not been doing it.
Scott: And so you and your staff are remotely, are you going to the office at all? Are you meeting clients in-person?
Molly: Yes. So, for me, personally… You know, I think everybody has to develop their own risk tolerance. I am a very risk-tolerant person. So, I take precautions, but I have been in the jails from day one, it is important to me if my client is there, I am there. And so I have been meeting clients who are incarcerated no matter what jail setting they’re in. And when it comes to hearings, we don’t have trials. But when it comes to hearings, at least in federal court, we’ve been having the option of in-person and I’ve always asked for in-person. Because I think it’s important when it comes to things like confrontation, cross-examination, to have the presence of the witness there in front of you.
And so I’ve been going to court. And, you know, I had a mentally ill client, and I went to his first appearance in the basement court of the DeKalb County jail because it was important for me to be there next to him. And I was told I was the only lawyer who did that. But, you know, sometimes you just prioritize what’s important to you. I haven’t traveled, I haven’t been in a group, I haven’t seen a lot of my friends and family. But I have seen my clients and I have been in court.
Scott: I see. Well, I think we’re going to wrap. I think that it’s been a really good conversation. Is there any closing words you want to give to the listeners? Anything you want to tell them?
Molly: Well, they come to my Instagram @mollyparmer. No, I don’t know. I think that this has been really fun to talk to you, Scott. And honestly, I think some of the stuff that you said about the guidelines is kind of reframing my thinking. So, really, the pleasure has been all mine. I’m glad I got to hear your thoughts as well.
Scott: Well, thank you. Where can people find you? I know you mentioned Instagram. We’re on Instagram are you? What’s your web address? How can people find you if they want to find you?
Molly: So, my website is www.parmer.law, P-A-R-M-E-R. And then my famous Instagram is @mollyparmer, M-O-L-L-Y, P-A-R-M-E-R. I have a Facebook, it’s @ParmerCriminalDefense. And then if you want to get real hip and crazy, I have a TikTok, but I am not on there all the time.
Scott: Oh well. Okay.
Molly: Oh yeah. Let’s see, what is my TikTok? It’s Atlanta Lawyer. And I recently got on Clubhouse @MollyParmer. So, I’m on a lot of social media with the firm. And all of it is just me talking about being a criminal defense lawyer and what I do day in day out.
Scott: Well, great. Well, thank you so much. It’s been a pleasure talking to you.
Molly: Likewise. Thank you.
Scott: Thanks for listening to “The Advocate’s Key.” For more information and content like this, including a transcript of this episode, be sure to visit scottkeylaw.com, and please rate, review, and subscribe to this show wherever you get your audio content.