'The DWI Guy' Talks About His Sobering Job Defending Drunk Drivers

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Tom Anelli, "the DWI Guy," wants to set something straight, right from the start: "My wife and children drive around on the same roads as you do, so don't look down your nose at me for doing this work. Just because we defend those charged with DWI doesn't mean I advocate drinking and driving."

So how does a successful attorney enter the world of drunk driving? In Anelli's case, it was by choice.


The DWI process

As a young, up-and-coming attorney in the upstate New York area, Anelli became concerned when he saw lawyers "handling DWIs like traffic tickets." Too often, he said, general law practitioners take on DWI cases when they aren't trained or equipped to do so because they are either trying to be all things to all people or are trying to establish their name and their business. In DWI cases, their approach often was to speak with the district attorney to get a reduced sentence.

As Anelli's interest in DWIs began to grow, he started studying the system to really understand DWIs and the law: how sobriety testing is done; how much training police officers receive; the constitutionality of how the sobriety tests are used, etc.

Anelli spent two days in a factory learning how DWI breathalyzer machines were made, and his interest piqued even more. He learned that police only receive sobriety testing training one time in their entire career and that as a result, sobriety tests are often administered incorrectly. And, because so many attorneys try to practice multiple areas of law, they do not practice all those areas well, forcing the attorneys to take a plea or miss the fact that a field sobriety test was incorrectly administered, making it unconstitutional.


The 'DWI Guy'

As a result of his curiosity and research efforts, Anelli decided to focus his energy on practicing one type of law, and practicing it really well. Almost overnight, "The DWI Guy" was born. As Anelli's website says, "you wouldn't go to a general-practice doctor for brain surgery. The science of DWI prosecution, like brain surgery, is extremely complex. DWI lawyers certified in field sobriety testing and machine use with national training can sometimes identify defense opportunities that other attorneys might miss or have not the training to discover."

Anelli recalls that in the beginning his services were so needed and in demand that "I used to ride around New York in the back of a town car with two Blackberries going at all times, riding from one courthouse [to testify as an expert witness] to another." To offset his huge workload, Anelli began hiring a team of other lawyers who also wanted to be specialists, just like him.

To help prevent his work life, which can sometimes be unpleasant, from seeping into his home life, Anelli used the Strategic Approach Program, run by Dan Sullivan, to help him separate the two. "I am home every night by 6PM to eat dinner with my family and sit with my girls before they go to bed at 8PM, and I have young lawyers who take the night court appearances," he said. "I spend the whole weekend at home with my family and not working. You have to do it to balance work and family life."

So why does Anelli keep going back every day to a job that is far from average and highly stressful? Because he really believes in the science behind DWIs and he trusts the legal system. "The real wins are when you do prove that the test aren't valid or that someone was actually wrongfully accused," Anelli said. This can happen if people have just been in an accident or if they have a medical condition that prevents them from taking a field sobriety tests. Also, "when you do all this training and work and really help someone, you really feel good."


Ways he can help

A common example of when tests can produce inaccurate results involves a nice dinner at your favorite restaurant that starts off with some bread. According to Anelli, who is also a certified field sobriety tester, a small crumb of bread that gets stuck between two teeth can absorb alcohol like a sponge and trap it there for hours. If you get pulled over on the way home for some other infractions, such as having a taillight out, even if you only had two sips of wine at dinner and are not drunk by any measure, that bread could give a false reading when and if you are forced to take a breathalyzer test.

Another advantage to being a DWI attorney in Anelli's book is that you can get people the help they need if they do have a drinking problem. "If people get arrested for drunk driving two or three times. we can send them to an alcoholic evaluator to see if they have a drinking problem or not. People want to work with us, so we can use that [the alcoholic evaluator's assessment] as leverage."


While Anelli's videos may lead you to believe that he is over dramatizing the world of DWIs for business purposes, in person this attorney comes across as a driven, family-man who truly believes that he is doing just what he was always meant to do.


When it's not so easy

But Anelli has seen the dark side of DWIs, as well -- many times in his career. Skaneateles, N.Y., is one such place. "I had the worst case of my life there," he said.

A man who was charged with is fourth DWI hit and killed a girl scout while she was delivering cookies. Described as average Joe, this defendant worked as a carpet installer and would stop on his way home from work and get a few beers at the local bar with his buddies. On the night of the accident, he stopped and had a few drinks after work, like always. As he was driving home, a car (belonging to the girl scout) was parked slightly in the road. The driver swerved to avoid hitting the misplaced vehicle, but ended up hitting the girl scout in the process, who was half in the road, reaching into the car for cookies. "At court I was just praying to God to get me through this. That was probably the low point in my career," said Anelli, "because this poor guy had a real drinking problem that just never got the attention it needed, until something tragic happened."


Generalists vs. specialists

Despite the bumps in the road to being "The DWI Guy," Anelli stays focused and committed to this challenging and unconventional job. "I think that any job at this level is harder than doing it as a cursory -- it's harder to delve deep into one level of the law rather than the entire law, and its been hard to turn down some lucrative work in the past and tell people that I am going to be true to this mission alone."

Regardless of your profession, Anelli recommends being a specialist instead of a generalist. Pick one thing, anything, but do it better than anyone else and you will succeed.

"The way I got over the hump of being a generalist and being a specialist is through marketing, because that is the key to creating a brand. Advertising is also good when it helps people make the right decision, which is what I am trying to do, and the education factor is also huge. I travel, go through constant training, do research and continue to educate myself every day, which is expensive, but it is worth it."


Next: To Be a Specialist or Generalist? The Case for Each >>

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