COLUMBIA — Even before he became a public defender, Kevin O’Brien knew firsthand the importance of state-provided attorneys.His senior year at MU, O'Brien was arrested for driving while intoxicated after taking a friend home from The Blue Note one night.
“I’ve been in a place where I was scared and needed help and didn’t have a lot of answers,” O’Brien said.
The public defender he was provided showed him what it meant to help people in need, and the experience stuck with him.
After graduating from University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Law, O’Brien went to work for the Missouri State Public Defender System. He's been a public defender for 10 1/2 years, eight of them in the Boone County office.
On Friday, he left the system to start his own practice. Assistant Public Defender Michael Byrne is also leaving the Boone County office to start his own practice after taking time off to prepare. His last day is March 31.
Both cited the office's high caseload among their reasons for leaving.
“I think it burns you out. If you care, I think you evaluate where you’re at and what kind of services you’re doing and the quality of work that you’re doing,” O’Brien said. “That was as much of it as anything. It wasn’t a matter of an overwhelming number of cases; it was just an ongoing amount of wear and tear that just wore you out.”
In the last decade, O’Brien has handled thousands of cases, including 31 jury trials, 28 of which were felonies. He said he's enjoyed the work environment.
“As happy as I am, probably the only regrets that I have are leaving the people I’ve been so closely associated with; I mean some of the young attorneys that I’ve worked with and helped mentor,” O’Brien said. “I suspect it will probably be one of the defining periods of my career forever.”
His private practice, the Law Office of Kevin O’Brien in Columbia, will open immediately after his departure from the public defender's office.
Assistant Public Defender Jennifer Bukowsky said she would miss O'Brien and Byrne, who have been her mentors since she started in Boone County.
"It's disappointing. It's a blow to our office for sure," Bukowsky said. "It will stretch our resources pretty thin, especially since they're so experienced."
Another of the other young lawyers O'Brien mentored was Byrne. After graduating from Harvard Law School and working for Williams and Connolly in Washington, D.C., Byrne took a job in the Boone County office when he and his wife moved to Columbia in August 2005. He had originally planned to work two years before opening his own practice in Columbia, but he changed his mind.
“I viewed it for me as being almost the same as a medical residency,” Byrne said. “It’s a demanding job, it’s a very difficult job, but after doing it, especially if you take the opportunities that the job can give you, it can be the most rewarding and have the biggest learning experience.”
During his three-and-a-half years, Byrne has handled about 1,200 cases, including the pending William Clinch murder trial.
Byrne said he'll miss the friendships he made while at the public defender's office as well as its support system, "how when one of us goes to trial, somebody else always wants to second chair for them and help them."
Other Boone County public defenders will watch part of their colleagues' trials.
"They’re willing to take the time," he said, "Even if it means they stay later that night to come in and show support, and that’s really been wonderful."