Justice For All
An inside look at the work of local criminal defense and civil rights attorney Justin E. Sterling.
Written byLaura L. Watts
Photographed byTameka Jacobs & Leah Gunn Emerick
Criminal justice. Just the sound of those words brings to mind images of police, prosecutors and prison. Or maybe it reminds you of the last Netflix series you binged. In reality, anyone can find themselves suddenly involved in a criminal case—whether they are part of an underserved community or a resident of an affluent neighborhood.
“Our clients come from all walks of life,” shares criminal defense attorney Justin E. Sterling. “We represent doctors, lawyers, real estate brokers, professional athletes, teachers, students and retirees who find themselves entangled in the criminal justice system.”
The team at the Law Offices of Justin E. Sterling often represents those who have been subjected to physical injury, racially motivated arrests, sexual abuse and other types of law enforcement misconduct. Justin not only seeks an ideal outcome for each client; he also looks to the bigger picture—striving for meaningful systemic reform in a system that can be stacked against the “little guy.”
The full-service law firm specializes in criminal defense cases—everything from domestic violence and white-collar crimes to drug charges and homicide. In addition, Justin and his team are highly specialized in civil rights issues, representing clients who were victimized by those in positions of power. A busy area of the practice recently has been Title IX hearings—proceedings initiated by an educational institution against a student or faculty member due to complaints of sexual discrimination, harassment or assault.
Learning the Ropes
So how did this native of quiet, peaceful Sherman Oaks end up representing the accused and the mistreated in high-stakes cases? “I grew up during a very interesting time in Los Angeles,” Justin shares, “which for me triggered an interest in social justice and law.”
During college he worked for a legal aid clinic under the supervision of local attorneys and also interned for a criminal defense attorney. “I caught the bug,” he remembers. “Helping people, being in court, it was full immersion into this new world that I loved.”
Law school was the logical next step for Justin, and he chose San Francisco to pursue that path. During that time, he worked as a clerk for the city’s public defender’s office. Those years in the Bay Area were influential in shaping the type of lawyer he wanted to be.
“I was in awe of these attorneys,” he says of the public defenders he worked with. “Totally fearless advocates—in the trenches, day in and day out, fighting for disenfranchised people who otherwise had no voice. I gained invaluable courtroom experience on really interesting—and sometimes really sad—cases when I was in my early 20s.”
His mentors, both in the classroom and the courtroom, were very encouraging, and they were instrumental in setting Justin’s career trajectory. He was a sponge, absorbing everything he could from his professors and the attorneys he shadowed.
Back Home in SoCal
Toward the end of law school, he had to make a decision: stay in San Francisco or go back to his hometown to start his career in law. “I was so set up in San Francisco, but I missed Los Angeles,” he says. “I’m a SoCal kid at heart, and I knew long term where I wanted to be. So I moved back, studied for and passed the bar, and by chance got a job with the Los Angeles County Public Defender—the same work that I did in San Francisco. Score!”
While many new lawyers strive to work with a big, prestigious law firm with all the bells and whistles, this was Justin’s dream job. “I was surrounded by like-minded peers, in court all day every day, trying cases and learning the ropes of becoming an effective advocate,” he says.
During those years in public service, Justin established a reputation within the legal community as a talented trial lawyer and went on to open his own firm in 2011. This June marks 15 years in practice.
For a large metropolis, the legal community here is rather intimate, he says. “You know everyone, and everyone knows you. I have professional relationships with prosecutors, judges and other lawyers who I then see at the soccer game on Saturday. Relationships, reputation and mutual respect are everything in our line of work.”
Active in the community, Justin advises students about career paths in law, participates in oversight and accountability symposiums with local law enforcement, and lectures and trains other attorneys in his areas of specialization. Last year he gave a presentation, “Resolving Civil Rights Disputes in the Age of Disruption,” at the American Bar Association’s Spring Conference.
Justin met his wife, Alissa, who is also a criminal defense attorney, while working in the Los Angeles courts. They recently celebrated their 11th wedding anniversary.
When the two are not working, they spend as much time as possible with their family in the great outdoors—traveling, surfing, camping and playing sports. They also enjoy exploring the dynamic local food scene: dinner at Kato in ROW DTLA or Grandmaster Recorders in Hollywood, lunch at Petite Peso for Filipino bites, or “some of the best Oaxacan al pastor tacos around” in Winnetka.
As Justin and his team continue to guide their clients through their legal tribulations, he realizes more and more how rewarding it is to help people navigate the criminal system or to help them obtain justice when they’ve been victimized by misconduct. “Doing right by the client is, of course, always the primary mission,” he shares. “But when your work starts to bring about policy change and reform within your own community, it gives that work larger significance.”
Since the beginning of his career, Justin has been asked, “How can you defend those guilty people?”
He points out that if we didn’t exercise those core rights—the right of cross-examination, the right to defend oneself when accused, the presumption of innocence—they may atrophy over time, creating a less just system for someone who is innocent, overcharged or caught in the crosshairs of the state’s charges. With far too many criminal and civil rights injustices in the public eye recently, Justin’s acquaintances seem to have shifted their perception of defense attorneys.
“I don’t get that question as often anymore,” he grins.