Erica L. Nuyen, a St. Louis County assistant public defender, didn’t choose her job for the paycheck. That became clear to jail transportation officers when they stopped for pizza.
“They kind of looked at me, then they looked again because my hair is in a ponytail and I’m in T-shirt and jeans,” says Nuyen, who had taken a job at a pizzeria to make ends meet. “I said, ‘Yes, it’s me.’ That was funny.”
Nuyen, who also baby-sits on the side, was able to drop her pizza-making duties last summer when her raise finally came through. But it’s still not money that keeps her doing what she loves.
“I do this every day because I like the people that I work with,” Nuyen says. “That includes both my co-workers and my clients.”
Originally from the southern Michigan town of Coldwater, Nuyen is a 2005 graduate of Saint Louis University School of Law. She had planned to pursue a career in corporate litigation but found herself disinterested in the intricacies of contract law. Internships with prosecuting attorney and public defender offices changed her direction.
“Every day was different,” she says. “I also liked being in the courtroom, which I didn’t expect when I originally went to law school.”
Like others in Nuyen’s office, fellow assistant public defender Patrick Brayer says clients are lucky to have Nuyen on their side.
“What’s incredible about her is her organizational skills and her ability to take any complex project and make order out of chaos,” he says. “That’s why she’s a good litigator. She has such an attention to detail in how she does depositions, talks to witnesses or investigates a case.”
Nuyen has earned the respect of those on the other side, as well. “She has a lot of credibility,” says Susan Peterson, a St. Louis County assistant prosecuting attorney who has sat across the table from Nuyen in plea negotiations. “She really picks and chooses the cases in which she comes to the prosecutor and asks for me to change a recommendation or give some leeway. It’s not every case, and that gives her a lot of credibility.”
Nuyen, who lives in the Benton Park West neighborhood of St. Louis with her husband, Mark, will celebrate four years as a public defender in September. While she knows there can be a high burnout rate in her profession, she says she still enjoys what she does – and has no doubt about why she does it.
“As a public defender, you have a lot of challenging clients and challenging cases. But they are all people who need help, at the lowest point in their life,” Nuyen says. “It’s about finding solutions that aren’t always what I hope or what they hope, but sometimes it’s the best possible solution.”