Dirty Harry Holly

How Holly Hempel trained with the Maryland Police Academy

Published in 2009 Georgia Super Lawyers — March 2009

The pepper spray in the eyes was the worst. By the time she ran over to the sink, the pool of water there was already slick with chemicals from other trainees and offered little relief.

"It was really, really terrible," Holly Hempel, now a partner at Nelson Mullins in Atlanta, says of that experience a decade ago while at the Maryland Police Academy.

Hempel landed in law-enforcement training in Ocean City, Md., because she was interested in the FBI. "A family friend at the time was with the FBI and Secret Service," she says. "He suggested that I get some experience as a police officer before I started law school."

So after graduating from Rider University, a small private school in New Jersey, Hempel attended a four-week seasonal-officer training program. "We learned how to carry a .357 handgun," she says. "I didn't have enough strength in my left hand. I couldn't even pull the trigger. You don't realize how weak your nondominant hand is until you try to shoot a gun—and that applied to the men, too. But I learned how to handle and respect my weapon. I was able to defend myself."

Once she earned her badge, Hempel worked the streets of Ocean City for the rest of the summer. Stationed in a resort town "with a population that explodes" during June, July and August, most of her calls involved stolen property, drunken driving, drugs and disorderly conduct.

In her most dramatic encounter, "a female inmate was on drugs and was a threat to herself and others," Hempel says. "She was bleeding from her mouth. We put her in a straitjacket, and four of us carried her to another isolated cell. It was a combination of scary and doing the right thing."

While at Wake Forest University Law School, she got a part-time job with the U.S. Attorney's Office in Atlanta and hoped it might lead to the FBI. "But I found that your career picks you rather than you picking your career," she says. "I wanted to work in the criminal division, but got an assignment with the civil division. It exposed me to a whole other area of law."

After graduation, Hempel worked for two small insurance defense firms and then joined Nelson Mullins in 2001. She primarily defends environmental and pharmaceutical companies in personal injury litigation.

It's a long way from Ocean City. "While the training was interesting in that I was learning basic criminal defense skills," she says, "I am much happier sitting safely behind my desk, using a different part of my brain, and wearing professional attire. And I definitely do not miss the hat."

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