Andrea Lewis has known what she wanted her career to stand for from day one. Her outlook rested on two principles: She was going to be a trial lawyer, and she was going to advocate for those who needed her help most. With her current career devoted predominantly to fighting for survivors of sexual abuse, she has made that mission a reality.
Lewis’ passion for advocacy is rooted in the courtroom. She joined the mock trial team while in law school at Florida State University and knew she’d found her calling. Invigorated by standing up in court, Lewis then joined the Certified Legal Intern program, which earned her eight trials under her belt before graduating. She then secured a role with as much trial experience as possible: Assistant State Attorney for the Palm Beach State Attorney’s Office. “It was really my time as a prosecutor that ignited the fire inside me where I really realized what I love doing,” Lewis says.
After four years at the State Attorney’s Office, Lewis moved to private practice at prominent personal injury firm Searcy Denney Scarola Barnhart & Shipley. Throughout her time as a prosecutor, Lewis realized that she wanted to focus her practice on sexual abuse, and her move to Searcy Denney brought that to fruition. Lewis says she is fortunate to have been allowed to forge her own path focusing on helping children and survivors of sex crimes: “Every single person at this firm is passionate about what they do,” she says. “They’re extremely supportive. Having the ability to go to work every day to really focus my practice and handle these cases primarily is wonderful. The thing I enjoy the most is being able to see the difference it makes in these people’s lives.”
Many of those people are children. Lewis has taken on numerous cases on behalf of minors who have been abused in school, family and work settings. A prominent portion of her practice includes representing child athletes who have been victims of sex crimes. In one case, she was one of the first lawyers to go through the U.S. Center for SafeSport arbitration process on behalf of a 13-year-old figure skater who was sent explicit images by a 26-year-old Olympian.
Lewis has taken on prominent cases outside of her sexual abuse practice, as well. Just after she came to the firm in 2014, Lewis was involved with a case which awarded an amputee $8.5M against concierge medical service MDVIP. For her first civil case, Lewis was a part of the first team to sue a medical concierge company successfully.
In addition to her work at the firm, Lewis is deeply involved in the legal community – she is currently President-Elect of the Palm Beach County Bar Association.
Lawdragon: Tell me about your time as Assistant State Attorney before transitioning to private practice.
Andrea Lewis: I've always felt it was an honor to be a prosecutor. I felt a responsibility to the community to do my part to keep the community safe, and to the victim in those cases, to make sure that I did everything that I could to seek justice on their behalf. But also, I felt a sense of responsibility to the defendant. Most people probably think that that would be unusual for a prosecutor, but my thought was all defendants are not created equal. You have the ability to steer their path, too. There are people committing crimes maybe because they’re addicted to drugs and not necessarily a bad person. As a prosecutor, you are given the unique opportunity to intervene in people's lives many times on their worst day. That could be a defendant or the victim of those crimes.
LD: That’s such an important outlook for a prosecutor to have. What cases stand out to you from that time?
AL: One case I will never forget involved a retired nurse in her 70s who lived alone (aside from her little dog) who was raped in her home by a 19-year-old man. The crime was violent and shocking, and it could not have happened to a nicer woman. While preparing for trial, I had the opportunity to get to know her and hear about her life – including many tragedies that she had suffered. As a young woman, she fell in love and got engaged to a man in the military. Unfortunately, her fiancé never returned home from war and, as a result, she had never married or had children and, prior to being raped by the defendant, she had not had sexual intercourse for over 30 years. Despite her struggles, she put herself through school to become a nurse, helped countless people throughout her lifetime, and never missed an opportunity to give back to her community.
During the horrific assault, she studied every detail of the man’s tattoos and committed them to memory. The level of detail that she provided to law enforcement was remarkable and, as a result of her assistance, the police caught the man later that evening. I remember telling her at the time – and I still believe – that she was one of the strongest people that I have ever met. Further, even after all of the things that the man did to her, she wanted him to know that she had forgiven him. She was an extraordinary person. That was many years ago and I still think about her often.
I am a firm believer that the only way you are going to excel to the highest extent possible in your chosen field is if you are very passionate about what you do.
LD: When you transitioned over to private practice, did you know that you wanted to continue working on those kinds of cases specifically, or did they come your way as you transitioned?
AL: I am a firm believer that the only way you are going to excel to the highest extent possible in your chosen field is if you are very passionate about what you do. When thinking about that in terms of what am I passionate about, the answer has always been helping and fighting for people who are victims or survivors of crime, fighting for children who don't have the ability to go into court and take on the bad guy. I can do that for them. And not only that, but I can fight for change to keep these things from happening to other children. To me that is equally as important as getting justice in the court system.
LD: When you're working on these cases, especially ones involving children, what methods of prevention do you see not being acted upon that could be?
AL: Children are very smart; they know when a situation is not right. The message I would give to parents is, number one, listen to your children. If they're telling you they have complaints about pains in areas of their body that they shouldn't have, listen to them. Ask them questions. Trust your instincts and investigate. If they tell you that they don’t like being around a certain adult or you notice them acting unusually, ask questions.
It’s also very important to let your children know that they can always talk to you about anything. Even if someone tells them to keep a secret, they should never listen to that person. They'll never get in trouble. Many times, perpetrators threaten, coerce or manipulate children by saying that they're going to get in trouble if they ever tell someone. You have to be the one to proactively tell your children, “That is absolutely incorrect. I will always listen to you, and I'll always believe you.”
The message I would give to parents is, number one, listen to your children.
LD: Looking at your recent cases, tell me about your work with the U.S. Center for SafeSport.
AL: The U.S. Center for SafeSport is an organization that Congress created to provide oversight on sporting activities such as figure skating. One of the goals of the organization is to identify and investigate sex crimes, harassment and other misconduct. It's still a fairly new organization and it is definitely a work in progress. They will do an investigation, independent of the police, memorialize their findings in a confidential report, and then determine whether the person is going to be sanctioned. They are well-meaning. The problem is that they do not share their findings or what they uncovered during their investigation with the general public. I represented a young girl who was victimized when she was 13 years old by a famous Olympic figure skater. SafeSport conducted a thorough investigation into circumstances surrounding the sexual misconduct, including allegations that many powerful people, including Olympic-level coaches, failed to report the skater’s actions and took steps to cover up the man’s bad acts in order to get the skater – and themselves – to the Olympics. SafeSport ultimately sanctioned numerous people for their involvement and the case went all the way through the appeals process.
LD: I'm sure it's difficult for clients, especially after they've been through something terrible, to have this out in the open in the media. How do you guide them through that process?
AL: Given the nature of the cases that I handle, a lot of them are highly publicized and, as a result, media relations tends to be a large part of the job. Understandably, there is great public interest in cases involving sexually motivated crimes and – most importantly – holding the perpetrator accountable to ensure they can never hurt anyone else in the future. The media can play a very important role in bringing attention to cases and obtaining justice for the victims and survivors of sexual abuse. That said, most of my clients want their identity kept confidential and prefer that I speak to the media on their behalf when necessary. Some, however, feel strongly about telling their story personally with the goal of helping other survivors.
For instance, I represent a young woman who was 20 years old at the time that she was raped by an Uber driver. It was a horrible crime, and the man is now in prison. After learning that the driver had a lengthy criminal record, I filed suit against Uber and, almost immediately, I started getting calls from media organizations around the country. Despite how difficult it was for her to speak publicly, it meant a lot to my client to tell her story, warn other people, and hopefully prevent something similar from happening in the future.
LD: That’s horrifying.
AL: It was an understandably traumatic experience for her. Still is. And, despite everything that she has gone through, despite how hard this has been for her, it was very important to her to speak out. I really commend her for her bravery, because she wanted to tell her story for one reason and one reason only: She didn't want it to happen to anybody else. She wanted to warn other young women.
LD: Regardless of whether they're appearing in the media or not, I'm sure that these cases are difficult emotionally for your clients to go through. How do you support them through litigation?
It meant a lot to my client to tell her story, warn other people, and hopefully prevent something similar from happening in the future.
AL: With this subject matter, you're dealing with something that is extremely personal, extremely private. On top of that, if there is an ongoing criminal investigation or prosecution, that can be difficult for someone to navigate and participate in – especially in the aftermath of a traumatizing event. Given my prior work as a prosecutor, I am very familiar with law enforcement investigations, the inner workings of a criminal prosecution, and what it takes to successfully prosecute criminals. That knowledge and experience enables me to stay on top of and assist with the criminal case while my clients focus on healing.
LD: I'm sure that you have clients come in who are wrestling with that decision to come forward. Do you have a message for people who might be struggling to decide whether or not they want to do so?
AL: You are not alone. People want to help you. You deserve to live your life without harboring painful secrets or the burden of trying to protect someone who hurt you. Take the first step and ask for help.
LD: What advice do you have for early career lawyers who might want to build a career like yours?
AL: Find an area of law that you are passionate about and pursue it. Passion is the key to success.
LD: What do you find most fulfilling about your career now?
AL: Many of my clients have been through horrific things that most people cannot imagine and, when they first walk into my office, they are traumatized, emotional and scared. Their stories are often heartbreaking – and infuriating – and it is impossible not to get emotionally invested. I don’t like to see people hurting, and I really don’t like bullies, abusers and people that prey on children. I feel very passionate about helping my clients and doing whatever I can to ensure that the perpetrators are held accountable.