Talking to Assistant State Attorney Forest Sutton, 29, it’s clear how much he enjoys being a part of the local community. Reflecting on moving from Ellenton to the City of Sarasota earlier this year, the UCF grad and Stetson Law alum says, “My goal has always been to build roots where I am.”

He’s well on his way. In addition to his role in the state attorney’s office, Sutton is also active in the Sarasota County Bar Association’s Young Lawyers Division. “Basically, my goal is to facilitate events that foster community outreach and get attorneys out in the community,” he says. An example is last October’s three-day Know Your Rights event, in which young attorneys gathered at Selby Library to educate the community about a variety of legal topics, from divorce to estate planning to landlord/tenant issues.  “We wanted to make sure that people have the same access to legal representation and information,” he explains.

As someone whose docket currently includes 250 cases, he also sees firsthand the need in the community. “I don’t know that people know what goes on in Sarasota,” he says. “Every city has an underbelly, and until you get boots to pavement, you don’t really know what’s going on. I work closely with law enforcement—I’ll go on ride-alongs and details with them.

“Sarasota has a lot of specialty courts—drug court, homeless court, mental health court, DUI court,” he continues.  “Those courtrooms are full, and you wouldn’t know unless you go to hearings how prevalent the issues are. There’s a lot of drug use, and I’ve seen a rise in the use of fentanyl and people selling [drugs] but not actually knowing what they’re selling. There are a lot of cases of juveniles with firearms—and where are they getting them?” And, of course, there’s the ongoing issue of affordable housing. “[Lack of] affordable housing leads to homelessness, which can lead to a higher demographic of people doing drugs and committing crimes. They’re all connected.”

To that end, Sutton is grateful to the pro bono attorneys at Legal Aid of Manasota for helping ease his caseloads and those of fellow attorneys and provide the access to justice that everyone—regardless of gender, race, ability, or income—deserves. He connected with Legal Aid ahead of the Know Your Rights event and says that Legal Aid’s ability to help spread out caseloads is “a cornerstone of making sure everyone gets the opportunity for [legal] representation that the Constitution requires and that, ethically and morally, people deserve.”

And, he says, there’s another side of Legal Aid that he doesn’t think people always see. “Attorneys can be very hesitant to branch out of what we know—and I get it,” he says. “I don’t want to be set up for legal malpractice or say something wrong. But we can grow in other practice areas, and Legal Aid gives us another opportunity to connect and look at new types of cases.”

“If you take a case from Legal Aid of Manasota, you’re not thrown into the fire without direction,” he continues. “Many longtime attorneys volunteer their time there and provide mentorship if you need it—and even if you don’t think you do, they’ll be there. Legal Aid provides resources for both people in the community who need representation but also for attorneys who want to develop new skills.”

So how does Sutton persuade fellow young attorneys to get involved? “The practice of law is complex and fast at times, and the first three years can be brutal,” he admits. “But the way to incentivize young lawyers and newer attorneys to get involved is to start at the top. We want the more seasoned attorneys to encourage their associates and young attorneys to give back to the community. Being involved in the community you work and live in makes your life better—so many doors open, you gain mentorship, and things get so much easier.

“The younger generation wants to connect,” he says, “and when you know other people who are doing something, it’s incentivizing. The Young Lawyers Division is looking to bring more people to our organization, but also point them towards Legal Aid of Manasota and towards doing things with their colleagues.”

Lightning Round

On moving a lot as a kid: “I was born in Atlanta, but my dad was military, so we moved around a lot. We lived in Georgia for several years, then moved to Washington State and then moved to Florida in the middle of high school. I’ve been around a little bit, but it’s been great.”

On knowing when he wanted to become an attorney: “I knew pretty young. When I was a kid, I’d write contracts for my sisters when they owed me money—‘if you don’t pay me back by this date, the interest is going to compound by 25 cents every day!’ But my dad never enforced those contracts.”

On his favorite pastimes: “I love jazz, and I’ll go to jazz clubs and jazz festivals pretty often. There’s a great one in Jacksonville. I also play basketball, go to the gym, paddleboard and I love being outdoors. My office has no windows, so whenever I can get out, it’s refreshing!”

Please consider a donation to Legal Aid of Manasota by clicking here.