“If you had asked me to pick the most improbable thing, I couldn’t even imagine this circumstance,” Scherrer, 70, said.
Scherrer is the co-founder of the Missouri Coalition for the Right to Counsel, which partners private lawyers with the public defender’s office. It launched last spring, and in the summer instead of retiring, Scherrer left Armstrong Teasdale after 43 years, to take a full-time, unpaid position at the Missouri State Public Defender’s Office overseeing the program.
The program has quickly taken off, training more than 150 attorneys so far.
If someone had told him as a young prosecutor where his career would end up, Scherrer said he would have been “stunned.” Every step of his career, he said, has been a surprise, and not necessarily because of where it went, but because of the success he met along the way.
“I’m just surprised that things have gone pretty well,” he said.
Scherrer, always humble, is quick to point to others, including his family, law partners and firms, as the source of that success. He attributes the achievements of the coalition to other founding partners and volunteer attorneys.
“What I think I am in this program is a talent scout,” he said.
Scherrer began his law career working for the St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office.
“I like that paradox,” he said.
He spent two years there, which he said provided excellent professional development, and then landed a job at Armstrong Teasdale. In 1998, he was elected managing partner and served three consecutive terms in the role.
Scherrer speaks highly of his time at Armstrong, which he said was challenging and led to lifelong friendships.
“Because they were such a great law firm, with great lawyers, they helped me overachieve,” Scherrer said.
The firm speaks highly of him, too.
“In his time with Armstrong Teasdale, Richard did many tremendous things for the firm,” said Chairman Mike Chivell. “A litigator, he served as managing partner at the firm for almost a decade and led the firm to financial success. During his time with our firm, he tried more than 100 cases.
Chivell noted that Scherrer was also “always very involved in charitable and civic organizations
“His work with the public defender’s office is indicative of his innate desire to help others,” he said.
The idea for the coalition came from Scherrer’s discussion with Michael Barrett, director of the Missouri State Public Defender System. Scherrer was looking for ways to help as he was slowing his practice at Armstrong.
“Michael Barrett inspired me and I inspired him,” Scherrer said.
The coalition aims to help reduce the burden on the public defender’s office, which, like many others, has a massive caseload for its attorneys and struggles with a lack of funding.
A major perk of the program is that it gives attorneys an opportunity to first-chair a jury trial, which many young attorneys don’t get to do early on in their careers. The Missouri Public Defender’s office provides a two-day training session for all attorneys who participate.
The coalition launched in May with 21 firms on board. The goal was to start small, training about 50 attorneys, although there was some talk about possibly reaching 100.
By the end of the year, they had trained 165 attorneys, coming from 35 different law firms.
The number of attorneys signed up is one way the coalition measures success, Scherrer said. Another is looking at the number of cases assigned to those attorneys, which so far totals about 100, and the results of those cases.
Of the 36 cases assigned to coalition attorneys in St. Louis, three have been dismissed, nine have reached a plea agreement and two went to trial. One defendant was found guilty at trial and one was found guilty of a lesser offense. The rest are pending.
Scherrer said he didn’t yet have numbers for St. Louis County or Kansas City cases.
“I’ve been told overall we have good results in that regard,” he said.
Another measure of success, he said, is lawyers taking more cases after finishing their first. Scherrer said the coalition has already seen that, as well as firms continuing to send more lawyers to the training.
Scherrer is visibly proud of what the coalition has achieved so far, but, as is his nature, he shies away from taking credit.
“A lot of nice people have been very supportive of this program,” he said. “Those folks make us look good.”
One of a kind
While Scherrer is ever reluctant to sing his own praises, plenty of other people have done so, including Barrett and Gail Appleson, a former communications editor at Armstrong who helped Scherrer with the coalition from the start.
Barrett praised Scherrer for turning to volunteer work at the public defender’s office after walking away from his long-time legal career, instead of traveling or relaxing.
“Good luck finding another Richard Scherrer out there,” Barrett wrote in his nomination of Scherrer for Lawyer of the Year, pointing to Scherrer’s successful legal career as well as his numerous awards and community involvement.
In addition to his work with the public defender’s office, Scherrer helped found the Second Ranger Battalion Assistance Foundation, which provides assistance to Army Rangers and their families, after his oldest son served in the unit.
Appleson also noted Scherrer’s involvement with the foundation. She described him as someone who “truly believes that he has a responsibility to correct society’s wrongs and he uses his knowledge and passion to make the world a better place.”
She said he’s taken on controversial pro bono cases that others wouldn’t touch.
“I’ve seen him risk his health and his reputation to represent those without a voice,” Appleson wrote in her nomination.
She credits Scherrer for initiating conversations about the coalition, footing the bill for expenses to get it launched, and having the passion to push the initiative forward.
It’s thanks to his determination, she said, that it really got off the ground.
“He’s a man who just doesn’t believe in the word ‘can’t,’” Appleson wrote.
Scherrer remains determined and is focused on continuing to grow the program.
Additional training sessions are already planned and he is looking to expand to Springfield and, later, mid-Missouri.
He would also like the program to be in the position to have training available to anyone recently licensed. It wouldn’t be a requirement, he explains, but Scherrer hopes it will “just become the thing to do.” The training would rotate between St. Louis and Kansas City each year.
“That’s an immediate pool of lawyers statewide,” he said.
He’d also like to explore the possibility of big law firms offering fellowships that allow associates to spend nine months or a year working for the public defender’s office full-time.
“That’s a big financial burden for any firm to take again, but then again, the training could be priceless,” he said.
Scherrer also has hopes other states might model similar programs after the coalition.
Outside of work with the coalition, Scherrer’s big focus is family, which includes grandchildren Stanley, 4, and Rod, 2, who live nearby. Scherrer said he and his wife, Betty, frequently babysit.
“All I do is spend time with them or come to this office, which is wonderful,” Scherrer said.