Derek Byrd has passed on several chances to join a bigger law firm. He has no regrets.
A career-defining moment in Derek Byrd's law career happened April 4, 2011, outside the Hardee County Correctional Institution.
Byrd was there to greet Derrick Williams. Wrongfully convicted on a rape charge in Manatee County in 1993, Williams had spent 18 years in prison. Byrd, a defense attorney in Sarasota, had been part of the legal team, led by the Innocence Project of Florida, which pursued the case. A judge vacated the conviction after a hearing where newly discovered DNA evidence undermined the guilty verdict.
Byrd says Williams' walk to freedom was the culmination of a long battle. “To see his expression and tears of joy brought me to tears,” Byrd says. “It was very special.”
A Business Observer 40 under 40 winner in 2001, Byrd has had several bright-light cases like that in the last 15 years. Another standout is Cooper Moore, wrongfully charged in a fight in Sarasota last year. Not only did Byrd help clear Moore's arrest, but through a deposition with a witness in the case, he led police to find the actual perpetrator. “It was a real Perry Mason moment,” he says. “Most lawyers only dream about moments like this.”
While cases like those grab headlines, Byrd, 48, says his career and practice, the Byrd Law Firm, is built more on mitigating damage for clients. Attorneys at the firm include his wife, Heather Byrd, and brother-in-law, Drew Solnoki. “We try to limit the penalties,” he says, “or the over-penalties”
Several firms have approached Byrd over the years, to woo him away from his own legal practice. But Byrd says he enjoys the firm's independence. “We've had opportunities to join bigger firms,” he says, “with big money offers.”
The success does mean he can be choosier on clients. At first we “took every case that walked in the door because you didn't know if you would make it,” Byrd says. “Now we've grown to the point where we are more in demand. We can be more selective.”
Byrd, who took over the firm from his dad in 1998, splits his time between work, family and his two sons' youth baseball teams, where he is manager/coach/driver. “I still have the passion for what I do,” he says. “I genuinely like to help people.”
Blast from the past
Here are some of Derek Byrd's answers to an interview when he was a 40 under 40 winner in 2001:
Favorite Books: Any book that I can read to my son.
Professional ambition: To create an equal balance between being a successful attorney and husband and father.
Community involvement: I served on the Board of Directors of the YMCA for two years and am currently president of the Florida Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. I am also a member of the Frank Scheb American Inn of Court and Sarasota County Bar Association.
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