Norman “Chris” Polak, P.A., is a criminal defense attorney in Ocala, Fla., whose former careers as a police officer, ATF agent, and investigator for the Florida State Attorney’s office led him, eventually, to practice law. None of Polak’s jobs, past or present, could accurately be described as predictable. “This is a huge challenge,” Polak says. “Many times, the [legal] odds are more insurmountable than if you’re just prosecuting. Nothing’s ever the same from day to day, and that’s what I like about it.
How long have you practiced criminal law?
I’ve been practicing almost eleven years.
What attracted you to criminal law in the first place?
I started out, when I got out of college, as a police officer, and later, I worked for the state attorney’s office as an investigator. During that time, I’d gone back to school and gotten my Master’s. I was always interested in law school. When that possibility [to study law] came around, I didn’t want to let it pass.
Whom to do you represent?
In the criminal arena, I work with folks who’ve been charged with drug trafficking, sex crimes, murder, and white-collar crime. That is part of the realm there. Then I have some civil clients that I do collections work for—mostly small companies, locally, who I do collection work for.
How predictable is your daily schedule?
Here I can plug AnswerConnect. One feature I like is the 24/7 answering service. It’s not uncommon for us to get calls after-hours from family or someone who’s gotten in trouble and gotten arrested. Before AnswerConnect, for example, I’ve gotten calls at 4:30 in the morning. It’s not uncommon for folks calling at 6:00 or 7:00 pm, asking for assistance. From a standpoint of being able to respond, it’s nice to look down and see it’s someone I need to respond to immediately, or someone who can wait.
From a day-to-day perspective, you can’t predict that you can get a call. Often you’ll have your day planned out—you’re in court or in deposition—and someone calls and says “We need to hire you.” That changes your day around. Three out of five days of your week, something may happen where you have to change things up. Say your client’s in from another facility. Your day could turn into a 6:30 or 10:00 at night thing really quickly.
What do you love about your job?
It’s a challenge. Being able to work with someone’s case, dealing with the law, the evidence, and seeing how it affects them—does the evidence match the law that he’s been charged with? Different parts of the system are more challenging than others. After being involved as a prosecutor and a police officer and managing in the court system, this is a huge challenge. Many times, the odds are more insurmountable than if you’re just prosecuting. Nothing’s ever the same from day to day, and that’s what I like about it. You don’t get into a mundane, day-in and day-out thing.
How does technology affected your practice?
It’s amazing how much easier it is for me, with an iPhone and an iPad, with dockets being imaged in, I can go anywhere and do my job. I can access court systems, print files—it’s just easier, more diverse. You used to have to be in a room with the files. Now if I want to look at some property in regards a forfeiture action, say, I can be on my laptop, pull it up and look at it in Starbucks. Before, I had to get to the courthouse.
Years ago, I was a court investigator when crack cocaine was getting really big. All that money has to go somewhere, you know? So we would search property records. We always had to go down to the courthouse to do that. Now I can be remote and look this up. Now, with Google Earth, I can see where someone is.
Or we can go to the scene, take our laptops and iPhones and get answers to our questions at the scene. Years ago, we used to have to write down things and travel someplace to then look it up. Our jobs have become easier and more portable.
What’s the downside?
You can never get away from it. It used to be, you had a pager. Now we’re connected constantly. You can never really separate yourself. It may not be necessarily that my clients are sending me texts all the time. Maybe it’s a friend. But the question becomes, do you have another phone, a business phone and a cell phone? From a level of never being able to put it down and separate yourself, that can become problematic. Especially when it’s movie night with your family. It can be harmful if it pissed your family off.
One thing that’s hard is trying to know “What software do I need and what I don’t need?” Especially from an overhead business perspective, there’s so many things you can buy that you don’t really need.
The other side to that, I have a friend who scans everything. Daily. And if you communicate by email, and you do all your research online, if your hard drive goes down and the power goes off, there’s nothing like that calendar you took your pencil out and wrote in. Being paranoid, I still write things down in the calendar. It’s wonderful when Google Calendar works. When it goes down, though, you’re like a child, pulling your hair out.
Where do you see your practice in five years?
There’s no way of predicting what’ll happen with the economy. If you read a lot of predictions coming out of law schools and think tanks, they’ve tried to give us an idea. I’ve looked at these to predict where my practice will be in five years. I know we’ll remain portable.
We’re in a position where when someone misses a call, that client will go somewhere else. You’ll lose that lead, unless you’ve been referred to them. If you’re a parent and your son or daughter or family member is in trouble, you may not call back if I don’t answer. In the next five years, with the economy as it is, we have to be very quick to respond to people’s needs. You have to study your market not to out price yourself. In five years, we have got to be as quick or quicker to respond.
We’ve always had a general practice, where a lot of people have specialized. When the economy went south, it was positive for us. We had other clients coming in—we were doing collection work—and that helped us stay profitable. Compared to if I was in only one field: if that went dry, it went dry. In the criminal field, when mom and dad don’t have credit, their 401(k)s are drained, they don’t have cash, who’s going to hire me to represent their son, daughter or son-in-law?
We’re going to stay lean and not narrow our field. If things change, we’ll expand.