UF Law alumnus finds passion in trial law, public defense
Even after more than 30 years of practicing law, UF Law alumnus Gilbert Schaffnit (JD 77) still gets the same adrenaline rush in the courtroom as he did racing motorcycles in the 1970s.
“It’s surreal for me because I’m sweating, my heart is beating out of my chest and I’m not even the one that could be going to prison,” Schaffnit said.
During these moments of apprehension, Schaffnit, who owns a private practice in Gainesville specializing in criminal defense, is reminded why he chose to be a trial lawyer.
“I got into the law to be in a courtroom, to be amongst other lawyers and to do battle,” he said.
It was this passion that drove him to accept a job as an assistant public defender in the 8th Judicial Circuit of Florida during his third year at UF Law.
The job came with no health care benefits or retirement plan, but it provided Schaffnit with ample opportunity to be in court.
“There is no better place to get courtroom experience than as a prosecutor or assistant public defender because the sheer volume of cases dictates that you would be in the courtroom a lot,” he said.
Schaffnit’s first assignment was to represent juveniles in Alachua and Levy counties and mentally ill defendants in the circuit’s mental health courts. While still pursuing his degree, he rode his motorcycle across county lines to make it from his classes to courtrooms and mental institutions.
John Kearns (JD 72), an attorney at the public defender’s office at the time of Schaffnit’s hiring, first met Schaffnit when he was a highly involved undergraduate at the University of Florida.
Schaffnit brought Kearns in to meet with the Gainesville division of the American Civil Liberties Union, and Kearns began to notice Schaffnit’s passion for the law and his drive to help those less fortunate.
“I admire that (Schaffnit) is one of the few people who knew they wanted to be a lawyer from an early age and pursued it,” Kearns said about his good friend. “He gained an excellent reputation at the public defender’s office and has become an outstanding state and federal litigator.”
It was in juvenile court that Schaffnit said he learned the most about the law and his ambitions. During a hearing, he objected to one of his clients being taken into protective custody by the state and was challenged by the judge to open up his home to the young defendant. Schaffnit agreed and became a registered foster parent for three years.
Schaffnit previously volunteered as a mentor in the Big Brothers Big Sisters program.
“I was on a lot of committees geared toward helping the kids who needed it and this was just taking it to the next step,” Schaffnit said.
During his eight-year tenure with the public defender’s office, he defended clients in cases ranging from traffic infractions to a “gruesome” first-degree murder.
After observing what he calls a “higher bar” during his time at the public defender’s office, Schaffnit made Gainesville his home.
“I have the opportunity to be civil or friends with people that would normally be my adversaries because the judges (in Alachua County) hold the attorneys to such high standards,” Schaffnit said. “Usually this will lead (lawyers) to respect each other.”
In 1984, Schaffnit opened a private practice so he could take more cases in the United States District Court and challenge himself.
“In federal court, you have no discovery depositions and you have to think on your feet,” he said. “This definitely excited me because it’s almost a David versus Goliath situation.”
Since opening his practice, Schaffnit has argued and filed briefs at every level of the state and federal courts, except for the Supreme Court of the United States, where he has only filed briefs.
Fletcher Baldwin Jr., emeritus professor of law at UF’s Levin College of Law, was glad to see his friend and former student stay in Gainesville.
“(Schaffnit) has done a lot for Gainesville and the university over the years,” Baldwin said. “He gives back to the community and values friendship.”
Schaffnit has judged and lectured in UF Law’s trial and appellate advocacy programs. He takes the opportunity to prepare the students for the realities of practicing law, whether or not they ever go to trial.
“The best advice I can give (law students) is to be honest, have integrity and to always make sure what you’re representing is the truth,” he said.
Schaffnit, 58, gave up racing motorcycles at the request of his wife, Brenda. They have one son, Brian, 27.
Schaffnit has found new hobbies in wine tasting and sailing, which he hopes to do more once he retires.
A longtime fan of the Gators and member of the Gainesville Quarterback Club, Schaffnit still enjoys going to UF’s athletic events and his Saturday walks to Ben Hill Griffin Stadium during football season.
“I like being in a town that is dominated by a university. If (Gainesville) had a beach, I would retire here.”