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Nevadan at Work: Las Vegan finds her calling as defense attorney

Her dad was a Las Vegas police officer. Her brother is a Las Vegas police sergeant. Her two nephews are also Las Vegas police officers. Another brother is a police detective in Nebraska.

And Amy Chelini is a criminal defense lawyer.

“Obviously, there’s a lot of interesting discussion at Thanksgiving dinner,” Chelini, 41, of Las Vegas, said at her downtown law office.

Chelini, a Las Vegas native and Bonanza High School graduate, was not always a defense lawyer. After earning a law degree at Santa Clara in 1999, Chelini worked in the District Attorney’s office in Clark County and then worked with a civil lawyer before opening her own practice working on criminal defense cases for the past decade.

Despite being a woman, Chelini is perfectly at home shooting the breeze with all the guys in the local criminal defense community. Chelini, who is a Boston Red Sox fan, said she went with a group of criminal defense attorneys to a Red Sox-Oakland Athletics game in Oakland, Calif.

“Just me and the guys,” Chelini quipped.

Chelini has an upbeat demeanor who takes pride in her role as criminal defense lawyer. In fact, she’s hard-driving enough to welcome a chance to question her police officer brothers in a courtroom setting.

“As much as I’d like to subject my big brother to cross-examination, I know the rules of ethics would not permit me,” she said.

She loves the Red Sox because her mom was from Melrose, Mass. Her dad was from Queens, N.Y., but she’s no Mets fan.

A wall in her office at South Seventh Street and Garces Street is devoted to framed Sox memorabilia such as a game ticket signed by former star pitcher Pedro Martinez and a color photo of second baseman Marty Barrett, who signed his picture, “To Amy, See what keeping the faith does — 2004 World Champs.”

Chelini ran for Justice of the Peace, Department 8 in 2012, but lost to 12-year incumbent Ann Zimmerman. Chelini said she’s considering running for judicial office in November 2014.

Question: Why are so many women entering law school these days?

Answer: Historically, women may have felt intimidated to enter what was once thought of as a man’s profession. Thankfully, in today’s world that is no longer the case. Women graduating college are fortunate to have benefitted from the perseverance of women who came before them. I consider myself very fortunate, and I am grateful for these pioneers. I have been able to enjoy a successful career in the practice of law because of them.

Question: Did you have female lawyer role models when you were starting your law career?

Answer: For me, I would have to say Sandra Day O’Connor. After graduating law school, firms refused to even interview her for an attorney position. Instead of being deterred, she entered the legal field by working as a deputy county attorney, without pay and without an office. That perseverance and creativity took her all the way to the Supreme Court.

Question: What are the latest trends in law in Las Vegas?

Answer: The latest trends in law in Las Vegas are products of the economy. Labor and employment law, foreclosure and bankruptcy law — these are all popular right now because people are being forced to protect what they believe is theirs. They are fighting to survive in what is currently a bad economy.

Question: Are female lawyers treated equally in court and in the justice system as male lawyers?

Answer: We’ve come a long way in eliminating any bias towards women in the courtroom. In this day and age, if you’re prepared and competent, you will be treated fairly by the courts, regardless of gender.

Question: What areas of law seem to be the most popular for lawyers?

Answer: Again, the areas that are the most popular are directly related to the economy. Currently, foreclosure, loan modifications and bankruptcy are very popular.

Question: What’s the most misunderstood thing about your law job and about lawyers in general?

Answer: One of the most inaccurate beliefs is that all criminal defense clients are career criminals. Contrary to that belief, many of them are decent people who simply made a mistake. I think most people have known someone that has found their way into the criminal justice system and have gone on to become productive members of society.

Another common misconception is that prosecutors and defense attorneys are antagonistic toward one another. For the most part, the two sides get along very amicably. I consider many of the people in the district attorney’s office to be friends.

Contact reporter Alan Snel at asnel@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-5273.

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