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Deborah Owen's on a mission to help

December 18, 2001|By STEFANIE GREENBERG, Staff Writer

"Law & Order," "Family Law," "Ally McBeal," "The Guardian" and "Judging Amy" all are popular television shows whose actors depict various roles in the U.S. judicial system.

Americans have a fascination with the court system, whether through these evening dramatic shows or real-life cases on Court TV, "Judge Judy" or "People's Court."

Deborah Owen, the Imperial County deputy district attorney assigned to the family protection unit, lives out storylines akin to some portrayed on those popular shows.

A Brawley native, Owen worked in Las Vegas as a public defender before returning to the Valley. Hired locally in 1995, Owen's cases consist of violence against children and violence against women that is not domestic related.

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Owen said she always wanted to go to law school.

"I enjoy arguing the different positions and looking at alternative arguments and seeing whether arguments will fly," she said.

"I've always enjoyed being able to vigorously debate something and look at both sides of an issue. … That's something that I think even as a kid always interested me."

Even though she enjoyed her previous job as a public defender, she said she doesn't know if she could go back to it. Rather, she enjoys her current job and the chance it has given her to help children.

Working at the family protection unit, however, is unlike many other deputy DA's jobs in that her caseload is so specialized, she said.

The multidisciplinary approach the county has toward child abuse cases means if somebody reports a child abuse crime to a police officer, the investigator calls her immediately. That way, Owen said, she already knows about the case before it is filed.

"I try to maintain open lines of communication with the individual officers," she said.

Keeping informed about the cases means "it isn't a 8 to 5 job."

At times officers call Owen at home, which she says is not necessarily a bad thing.

"It shows how far we've come in terms of the relationship between the DA's Office and law enforcement," she said.

Learning about ongoing and potential cases is only one aspect of Owen's job. She also organizes training sessions for others in law enforcement.

She noted that all the police units have at least one person who is specially trained to interact with children. These officers have gone through intensive courses to make the process less painful, particularly for alleged child victims.

Owen divides her court time with administrative work.

If she has a trial, she will be in court all day. If not, she said she spends mornings at either Superior Court or the jail court for felony cases. Occasionally she handles misdemeanor cases.

In the afternoons she tries to finish administrative work. Many times, she said, she will prepare for trial at home after her children are asleep.

In an increasingly technological society, the Internet has impacted Owen's career both positively and negatively.

While communication is easier, she said she is concerned about child exploitation and crimes against children over the Internet.

"It's a definite negative to the Internet and it's something parents really need to watch for," she said.

Owen said she has seen a change in the profession in that lawyers don't make the type of money they did years ago. The days of lawyers making millions of dollars are over, she said, unless the caseload consists of major litigation or high-profile clientele. She also said, however, that job prospects are good for the future.

"I think the outlook is good and it will always be good because you are always going to need prosecutors, you're always going to need defense attorneys within the criminal setting," she said.

Spending the time to become a lawyer may be daunting to some individuals (it requires seven years of education after high school — four years of undergraduate study followed by three years attending law school). Owen suggests majoring in "something you enjoy and major in something that you're going to do well at."

"That is absolutely the beauty of a law career," she said, "is that you can major in anything in college and still go to law school."

Owen also suggests taking a course in completing the Law School Admission Test and choosing a law school that is affordable.

"If you go to law school in another state, that doesn't mean you can't practice in California because law school doesn't teach you specific laws," she said.

"Law school teaches you a way of thinking and a way of approaching the law." Once having graduated, she said, students must study for the bar exam. If studying to practice in California, they should make sure to cover laws specific to that area.

After passing the bar exam, there are different types of law to enter: environmental, intellectual property, private practice, government and specializations such as bankruptcy, probate and international. Law degrees also can be a good springboard into other types of careers, Owen said, such as the working for the FBI.

Owen said she recommends public sector law as an excellent way to mix work and a family.

"I always knew that I wanted to be a working mom, so I picked a career that would allow me to do that," she said.

And then, she said, there are lawyers who go to law school and never want to go into a courtroom.

The occupational outlook handbook by the U.S. Department of Labor's Bureau of Labor Statistics said lawyers held about 681,000 jobs in 1998 and about seven out of 10 lawyers practiced privately, either in law firms or solo practices.

The handbook reported, "In 1998, the median annual earnings of all lawyers was $78,170. The middle half of the occupation earned between $51,450 and $114,520. The bottom decile earned less than $37,310."

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