William J. “Bill” Sheppard is a criminal trial attorney based in Jacksonville, Florida. For the past forty-four years, he has built a reputation as an eminent civil rights, criminal defense and appellate attorney. He is well known for handling cases involving police misconduct, police shootings and the First Amendment to our nation’s Constitution in state and federal court. He has also taken on a number of race, age and gender discrimination cases. Bill’s interest in vindicating his clients’ rights has led him to argue before the United States Supreme Court. He has appeared in front of the court on three different instances, including his successful augment in Doggett v. United States in 1992. One of Bill’s greatest successes as an attorney was when he litigated Florida’s momentous statewide prison conditions case, which produced considerable improvements in sufficient care for those who were incarcerated. Whether it’s a complicated white-collar defense case or death penalty case, Bill has successfully exonerated his clients for the past four decades he’s been practicing law
Over the years, Bill has been awarded with several distinctions. He’s been chosen for inclusion by Florida Legal Elite, which recognizes a prestigious list of 1,348 attorneys selected by their colleagues. In 1978, the trial attorney was a recipient of the National Federation of the Blind of Florida Distinguished Service Award. In 1982, the ACLU presented Bill with the Nelson Poynter Civil Liberties Award. The President of the Florida Bar presented William with the Tobias Simon Pro Bono Award in 1985. He earned the Civil and Human Rights Award in 1990 and the Selig Goldin Memorial Award in 1993. In 2000, the ACLU presented Bill with the Nelson Poynter Civil Liberties Award. The following year, he received the Steven M. Goldstein Criminal Justice Award and was awarded The Florida Bar Foundation Medal of Honor Award in 2004. The Humanitarian Award, which was presented by the First Coast Coalition, was given to him in 2009.
For the past thirty years, Bill has held an “AV” (pre-eminent) Martindale-Hubbell rating. He is a Super Lawyer and from 1994 through the present, he has been selected for Best Lawyers in America in the areas of appellate, plantiff’s employment, as well as white collar and non-white collar criminal defense. His law firm is rated by Best Lawyers in America as a tier one law firm, the highest rating available. In addition, Bill is a Master of the Bench Emeritus in the Chester Bedell Inn of Court and a Fellow in the American College of Trial Lawyers.
Bill was born in Portland, Oregon and raised in Burns, Oregon. He moved to Orlando, Florida when he was sixteen years old. The Super Lawyer graduated from Florida State University with a B.A. in English. He earned his J.D. from the University of Florida College of Law, where he served as Executive Editor of the Florida Law Review.
Bill has been married to his law partner, Elizabeth L. White, also known as Betsy, for twenty-seven years. He has six children who range in age from forty-six to fourteen years old, one of whom is getting ready to follow in her parents’ footsteps. Although Bill admitted he is a workaholic, he enjoys watching his son wrestle for the Episcopal High School Eagles. He and his wife also enjoy watching his youngest daughter strive to achieve her dream of becoming a doctor. He also enjoys listening to Leonard Cohen, a Canadian novelist, poet, musician and singer-songwriter. Bill recently attended Cohen’s concert in Colorado, where he watched the music legend sing two of his favorite songs: “I’m Your Man” and “Everybody Knows.”
Bill’s Successful Law Career
Bill was asked, “Why did you decide to become an attorney?” He replied, “I’m not sure I can tell you. When I applied and was accepted to law school, I was in Korea.” He served as First Lieutenant in the United States Army in Korea before he enrolled at University of Florida College of Law. The trial attorney continued to say, “I took the admissions test down the street and four days after I was discharged, I began law school.”
What is the best part of his job? “All of it. We are a unique office. Five lawyers specialize in criminal defense and civil rights in state and federal court. We handle police misconduct, police shootings and the First Amendment to our nation’s Constitution.”
Bill started his legal career in the fields of banking and real estate before becoming devoted to civil rights and criminal defense advocacy. When and why did he decide to make that transition? “In 1970. I felt there was a movement going on in America. I got to know a black lawyer and got involved in the civil rights movement from a lawyer’s standpoint. The black lawyer became a state court judge and then became the first federal judge in Florida’s history.”
Bill has litigated Florida’s historic statewide prison conditions case on behalf of prisoners in the municipal and county jails in the sunshine state. Was he happy with the result of the case? According to Bill, “I am very happy with the results. We were able to affect several hundred jails with the help of other attorneys. It was extremely successful in cleaning up jails and closing them down.” The attorney added, “The statewide prison case went on for fifteen years.”
Bill discussed what he is known for professionally. He explained he has a knack for criminal defense and civil rights. He noted, “Many firms do criminal defense, not too many firms do civil rights.” The Super Lawyer also explained how most of his cases involved citizens going to federal court, complaining about their civil entities and complaining about their civil rights.
When asked, “Is there an area of practice you would like to develop further into?”, he answered, “No. I am totally satisfied. If I had to do something else, it would be immigration. I just haven’t done it.”
In regards to his strength and weakness, he acknowledged, “I am a loudmouth with a lot of imagination and creativity.” As for his weakness, he declared, “I don’t have any. You can’t have or show weakness if you want to be a criminal defense lawyer.”
So what does Bill think about the legal field today? What would he change about it? “More lawyers need to get involved with civil rights and they need to be better lawyers in the area they practice. It doesn’t matter what area they practice, they need to be the best.”
If he weren’t a lawyer, what would Bill probably be doing? He replied, “I can’t even imagine. Only thing I wanted to do is be a cowboy or lawyer.”
Although it’s hard for an individual to predict where they might be in five years time, Bill expressed he has no desire of changing what he is doing and he hopes he is doing the same work he is doing today.
What motivates him to be a trial lawyer? “The satisfaction of A) helping people and B) making the constitution work besides being a paper. A criminal and civil rights lawyer is a constitution lawyer.” He pointed out that he brings up the constitution in every case.
Professionally, the Korean veteran wants to be remembered as someone’s word you can count on. “I want to impress everyone I know, where they can take what I am saying to the bank.” He also wants to be remembered for being passionate about the law. Personally, Bill is proud of his accomplishments as a father, raising diverse and interesting children, each with a different personality and passion for life. “I did the best I could in raising six children.”
Arguing Before the United States Supreme Court and Doggett v. United States
Bill had the opportunity to argue before the U.S. Supreme Court on three different occasions. How was this experience? He enjoyed every minute of his experience, claiming, “It was a high experience. It’s what every lawyer dreams about, but not every lawyer gets to do.”
What made Bill litigate Doggett v. United States? The attorney stated, “Marc Doggett came in after he was charged with a crime and he retained my services. We got into the case and issues and ultimately won it, but we didn’t win it until we went to the Supreme Court. The case has been cited five thousand times.”
In 1980, Doggett was faced with drug related charges. Before he could be arrested, Doggett left the United States and was considered a fugitive. In 1982, he returned to the U.S. and had a normal life. Although the government wasn’t actively looking for the fugitive, they coincidentally became aware of his location and arrested him in 1988. The U.S. Supreme Court concluded that the eight and a half year delay between the drug charges and arrest infringed Doggett’s Sixth Amendment right to a speedy trial. The Court believed that the government had been negligent in tracking Doggett, who had been unaware of his indictment until the authorities arrested him.
William’s Mentor, Pro Bono Work and Non Profit Organizations
Tobias Simon was William’s mentor until he passed away at a young age. Simon was a civil rights and criminal defense attorney. Another early influence was Sam Jacobson, who like Bill, has argued significant constitutional cases before the U.S. Supreme court. According to Bill, “Sam Jacobson was one of my earliest mentors and I still consider him my mentor to this day.” Bill also stated that he mentors lawyers in his firm and they mentor him. “I learn something from them every day.”
Does Bill handle pro bono cases? The Super Lawyer said, “Oh yes. I handle pro bono cases on behalf of combat veterans coming back from the Middle East.” The former First Lieutenant said taking on pro bono cases is his niche.
Bill is also a board member of the Bunker Project, a non-profit organization where veterans can help other veterans adjust to civilian life. “Our country is overwhelmed with veterans coming back from the Middle East. It’s been eleven years of combat and I am glad to help them adjust when they come back from overseas.”
Greatest Achievement and Future Goals
When asked about his greatest achievement, William said he was happy to do the type of law he has done for forty plus years. “Absolutely wonderful career. Can’t be bored with what we do. A lot of people are bored doing what they do.” He also listed his six kids and one grandson as his greatest achievement.
What is William’s future goal? He candidly replied, “Staying alive and keep on keeping on.”