Recent Graduate Uses Miami Law Experiences to Land in State Attorney’s Office

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Steven Vitale, JD '15

Steven Vitale, JD ‘15, likes to see an issue from all sides before making a decision. From prosecution to defense to legislation, and a view from the courtroom as a judicial intern, Vitale used his time in law school to understand the legal process from all perspectives. Currently an Assistant State Attorney in Ocala, Florida, the ability to put himself in the shoes of all the different players, inside the courtroom and out, helps him to most effectively represent his client—the state of Florida.

Vitale chose to study at Miami Law due to his strong ties to South Florida and the campus community. Coming from a the very small undergrad campus at Rollins College, Vitale also liked that the Miami law campus is integrated with the undergraduate campus making the size of the school just right – not too big and not too small.
Once at Miami Law, Professor Scott Sundby was instrumental to Vitale developing a desire to pursue criminal law.

“I found Professor Sundby’s passion about the area of law contagious,” said Vitale. Through Professor Sundby’s courses, Vitale also realized that practicing criminal law would enable him to make an impact on people’s lives on a daily basis. Vitale’s interest in criminal law was strengthened after he was accepted in to the competitive Summer Public Interest Fellowship (SPIF) program run by the HOPE Public Interest Resource Center at the end of his 1L year. Through the SPIF program, Vitale was placed at an internship with the Felony Unit of the Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office where he had an exceptional experience.

Wanting to see the other side of the courtroom, as a 2L Vitale participated in Miami Law’s then Death Penalty Clinic. He found the clinic to be fascinating and worked on a case that went to a 6-week trial. “Through the clinic, I was able to review case files, interview witnesses, and draft motions, such as a motion to suppress and a motion in limine, in addition to attending the trial,” said Vitale. He also enjoyed the academic aspect of the class component of the clinic, focusing on the controversial use of the death penalty.

Vitale continued to build on his experience by interning at the Juvenile Division of the Miami-Dade State Attorney’s office as a 2L, and served as a law clerk in the Narcotics Division of the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

For his 2L summer, Vitale again secured a coveted fellowship through the HOPE Public Interest Resource Center. The support provided by the Hope Fellowship allowed Vitale to spend the summer working in Washington D.C. with the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL) where he assisted on criminal justice policy work and legislative advocacy. He observed congressional hearings and recalls listening to Piper Kerman, the author of Orange is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison, which became a popular series on Netflix, testify on collateral consequences of criminal convictions.

Vitale also recalls observing hearings on issues such as solitary confinement, electronic surveillance, privacy laws, child support obligations, and others. Vitale also spent a part of his summer after his 2L year working as a Judicial Intern for the Honorable Ursula Ungaro, a Judge on the United States District Court for the Southern District of Florida.

At Miami Law, Vitale also participated in the Litigation Skills program, which he recommends for any law student interested in doing litigation based work. He was an Articles and Comments Editor for the Business Law Review, a member of the Public Interest Leadership Board and active in the Society of Bar and Gavel.

While an undergraduate student at Rollins College in Winter Park, Florida, Vitale knew he wanted to go to law school. “I pursued a major in Religious Studies and Classics, subjects that interested me but that I also knew would prepare me for law school. Both concentrations fostered analytical reading and writing skills that I knew would be invaluable once I began studying the law,” said Vitale.

As a college student, Vitale also participated in speech and debate to sharpen his ability to communicate effectively and think quickly on his feet.

After contemplating his varied undergrad and graduate experiences, Vitale felt that he could make the largest impact working as a prosecutor. He thought the best place to begin his career was in a State Attorney’s Office and he was thrilled when he was offered his position as an Assistant State Attorney in Ocala.

As with all Assistant State Attorneys, Vitale has begun by handling misdemeanor cases such as DUIs, batteries, thefts, and traffic violations. However, he has also had the opportunity to argue cases that would make a state-wide impact such as a constitutional challenge to Florida’s licensing requirements and a challenge to the rules on use of breathalyzers. He handles a heavy case load and tries to identify cases that are ripe for diversion and rehabilitation. He enjoys the balance between time in the courtroom and in-office case preparation.

Vitale advises current law students to get as much hands-on experience as possible and to pursue your passion.

“If you came to law school to do something specific, get involved in that area as much as you can. Do not be afraid to pursue what you love. I knew I wanted to do public interest work so I gained as much experience as I could which was essential to obtaining my current position,” Vitale said.