Right Place, Right Time
Jamilah LeCruise inherited a practice, then made it her own
Published in 2020 Virginia Super Lawyers magazine
on May 12, 2020
Updated on August 9, 2022
On day one at the Norfolk Public Defenders Office, Jamilah LeCruise inhertied 75 files. “By day two, I had 100,” she says. “A lot of people complain about public defender work, but these were not just files. These were 100 people whose lives I felt instantly responsible for.”
It was a lot of pressure. But she embraced the office culture, where there was zero time for hand-holding. “I took this job to get immediate, critical experience,” she says.
That’s also why, a few years earlier at 19, she sent résumés to every Richmond law office she could, looking for an internship.
“Virtually every response was that they were only interested in law students,” she says. But the Richmond Commonwealth Attorney’s Office made her a deal: We’ll pay you nothing, but you can come for the summer.
“I worked under the head homicide prosecutor,” LeCruise says. “How many 19-year-olds get to say that?” She sat in on trials and client interviews, and, thanks to her Spanish, helped translate 911 calls. “And of course, every intern’s duty—listening to hours of jail house calls,” she says. “The whole experience was just so fun, and only went toward solidifying that I’d end up in law.”
After three years as an assistant public defender, she wanted to experience something new. “I also had a 10-year plan: I wanted to be running my own firm by 35,” she says. Now 34, LeCruise shaved a few years off her timeline thanks to one serendipitous meeting.
“Let’s face it: I was a public defender, I wasn’t making a ton of money,” she says. “I found myself at a bar association meeting one night sitting next to an older lawyer, Robert Hagans Jr.”
She overheard Hagans ask if anyone would be interested in taking over his law office lease. A 30-year solo general practitioner, he had been appointed to the bench.
“I casually said, ‘I might be interested in that,’” she says. That was Tuesday. By Friday, he called.
“He said, ‘I’m not just interested in having someone take over my lease—I want someone to take over my practice,” she says. “So this is a situation where we didn’t know each other, and he’s trusting me and offering me this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I just had to make the decision, like, right then.”
She said yes, and in 2015, at 29, inherited his books, open cases and law offices.
Hagans, who passed away in 2019, came in every few weeks at first, then every few months, to check in. “It just worked,” she says. “I was doing divorce matters, wills. … For the first six months, it helped that I had these built-in clients. They’d say, ‘You look too young to be a lawyer, but if Robert says you’re OK, then OK.’”
LeCruise says the things she didn’t do were as important as the things she did. “I didn’t lease the big fancy car, I didn’t over-indulge in office furniture. … I was still using my law school laptop, so I bought a new one, but I was more concerned in learning how to run a business.”
Now she works primarily in criminal defense, and has cultivated a unique niche: representing college kids. “I found myself having all these college kids from schools like Old Dominion and Norfolk State who were drinking, being reckless, getting into trouble,” she says. “When you actually look into it, criminal defendants are mostly ‘average’ people.”
The rest of her clients, she says, are “people who’ve been in and out of the system their whole lives.” She’s taken on violent crime, drug and murder cases. She’s particularly proud of a 2018 not-guilty verdict in a first-degree murder case that marked her first murder jury trial. “My client was maybe only a year or two older than me, so that was tough,” she says.
Also tough: the nature of the practice. “Criminal defense is still very much a man’s world,” LeCruise says. “A lot of male attorneys, they’re just kind of used to the old guard.” Which is why she likes to do service work in impoverished neighborhoods like Tidewater Park, in particular, to reach young girls of color.
“Most kids there only think of the courthouse as a bad place,” she says. “I want to change that.”
She already has. At an event for the Boys and Girls Clubs of Southeast Virginia, a little girl raised her hand and said, “I want to be a lawyer.” “I asked, ‘Do you know any lawyers?’ and the girl said no. So I said, ‘Well, you do now,’” says LeCruise. “I’ll never forget the look on her face.”