Career Corner: Preparation is key to becoming a good lawyer
By Francie Weinberg
John DeVault III (JD 67) had no connection to lawyers growing up, but what he did have was books. He read about Clarence Darrow, Thurgood Marshall and other great lawyers.
“Those were life-changing events in our world, and seeing that lawyers had the ability to have that kind of impact really made an impression on me,” DeVault said. “I thought what lawyers did was go to court. Arguing in court was exciting to me so that’s always what I wanted to do and what I’ve always done.”
As a journalism major at the University of Florida, DeVault spent much of his time traveling the country with the Debate Team. He was also active in Florida Blue Key. In law school, he joined the moot court team and was executive editor of the Florida Law Review. He excelled in trial practice.
DeVault took ethics classes in the evenings, during which lawyers and judges from around the state would come to talk to students. He remembers one night in particular when Judge Tyrie Boyer from Jacksonville visited his class.
“I remember him saying, ‘there’s one firm that appears before me and every time they appear I know they will be well-prepared,’” DeVault recalls. “After that class, I went up to him and I said, ‘Judge Boyer, if you don’t mind, would you tell me who that firm is? Because that’s where I want to go to work.’ So I did everything I could to become an associate at that firm and fortunately I was lucky enough to get a job there and I’ve been here ever since.”
DeVault is now managing partner of the Bedell Firm in Jacksonville, the oldest law firm in Florida. He is dedicated solely to litigation matters and supervises the activities of the firm and its 14 lawyers.
DeVault also served as president of The Florida Bar from 1995 to 1996 where he promoted professionalism among lawyers. He has handled a variety of cases such as a child abuse case against the city, a commercial damages case against David Boies and arguing a criminal conspiracy appeal in the U.S. Supreme Court. Most recently, he represented three Florida Supreme Court justices as they fought the removal of their names from the November merit retention ballot.
But the most rewarding part of his job? Successfully defending a person charged with a federal crime who faces the possibility of years in prison.
“The big verdicts are nice, but seeing someone walk out of the courtroom free of federal criminal charges is the most satisfying,” he said.
DeVault also enjoys raising thoroughbred horses in Ocala with his wife, Sue, traveling and reading.
Despite the growing number of small firms merging into larger firms, DeVault still has hope for firms like Bedell.
“I like to think that a firm like ours that specializes in a particular area and does it well continues to have a place in the legal community,” he said.
He also sees bright futures for students who wish to practice law, especially those graduating from the Levin College of Law.
“I know for law students the job market is really difficult and a lot of people discourage students from going to law school,” DeVault said. “But I think if you go and excel at a law school that gives a good education and is well-regarded, such as University of Florida, that despite the job market and the prospects, individuals will be successful.”
He encourages students to be open to different opportunities and experiences. The more areas of the law that they can work in before settling into a career, the better. He also suggests that every student find a mentor that they can trust and be inspired by, as he was by Chester Bedell. Most importantly, though, DeVault encourages students to be prepared.
“What sets good lawyers apart from mediocre lawyers is preparation,” DeVault said. “If you know what to expect and you’re ready for it, you’ll come out better. Assume every lawyer that’s on the other side is smarter than you and that you need to work hard to overcome that.”