Her success as a criminal defense attorney is built on integrity and compassion
By Frances Shainwald
Photographs by Crush Rush and Sally Scott
If meeting Elizabeth “Betsy” Franklin-Best at her office on Devine Street, in Columbia – in a location with surprisingly convenient off-street parking – you would immediately be put at ease by her casual yet confident demeanor. The authenticity in her voice as she describes her passion for appellate and criminal defense work is palpable. Her approach to criminal defense law aims to bring humanity and dignity to those who have lost faith in the criminal justice system, combining thorough research with a holistic method of serving her clients.
Through her self-named firm, Franklin-Best has created a service that focuses on a group approach to supporting its clients, rather than a single lawyer devising a defense strategy. But the primary characteristic that really sets the firm apart from others is the efforts to meet with, educate and support the families of clients. Franklin-Best says she recognizes that one person is part of a social network, which includes family and friends. “We’re very aware of the collateral impacts in their lives.”
Franklin-Best initially wanted to be a prosecutor, but during law school she did an externship with the Wyoming Office of the State Public Defender, and it “fit like a glove.” She never looked back and spent years doing death penalty work before opening her firm in 2019. The death penalty work was valuable and necessary, according to Franklin-Best, but she also saw a lack of quality, aggressive representation for others in the criminal defense system. When opening her firm, Franklin-Best acknowledges she had to overcome a fear of failure, but once she made the decision, she said, “I executed on it fairly quickly … before I chickened out.”
In addition to her law firm, Franklin-Best started the SC Appellate Law Group LLC. It represents inmates while inspiring and educating younger attorneys on the importance of criminal defense and how to do the work related to those specific cases. Much of the group’s purpose aligns with the method of Franklin-Best’s personal approach to defense law, which involves creating teams to focus on clients, their cases, and their families.
The firm itself
The team within the law firm includes paralegal LaDonna Beeker, a former journalist with WIS-TV. The two met when Franklin-Best was an attorney on a case Beeker was covering. Beeker was considering changing careers right around the time Franklin-Best started her firm and finished her paralegal certification just in time to join it at its inception. They have also hired attorney Lawrence Long, a recent graduate of the Charleston School of Law. Additionally, the firm is in the process of bringing on a client care specialist. This would broaden the spectrum of efficient client services and “add an additional layer of support.” Franklin-Best’s corgi occasionally joins the team for the day, but he spends a lot of his time watching everyone while they work.
Franklin-Best built most of clientele through word-of mouth referrals, often from prison inmates to other inmates. Before taking on any referral the firm receives, she must believe there is something actionable her team can do for the client. They handle white collar criminals, but often seek to work with inmates in the South Carolina Department of Corrections. The firm also represents federal inmates who consider their sentences unjust. Franklin-Best says it “[a]lmost always makes sense to appeal.” She also said that despite the challenges of the pandemic, her work has been continuously moving forward. “We’re busier than we’ve ever been.”
On a day-to-day basis, the firm’s goal is to do the best they can do for their clients, offering them the quality representation they need. She says every individual case has its own unique aspects. “Sometimes you just really relate to the client … you enjoy working with the client … or because what’s happened is so unfair that you feel you could do something useful by representing them.”
The human factor in criminal defense
Franklin-Best acknowledges that the work she does has its challenges. The emotional investment in client cases can cause empathy fatigue, according to Franklin-Best. She says because she deals with a “lot of people with very real needs … people experiencing trauma and crisis,” practicing her own self-care is a must. She has learned to recognize when she needs time to step away, and uses running, reading (fiction, to escape from reality), spending time with family, and traveling to help offset the negative effects of difficult cases. Separating from client-related stress is something Franklin-Best says she has had to learn and practice. “I’ve been doing it for 20 years, so I feel like I’ve made it work. For younger attorneys, especially, it can be hard to draw those lines.”
Franklin-Best looks forward to growing her firm over the next few years. She wants to continue to build a team that offers a high-quality experience for each client. Not every case will be a win, but regardless of the outcome, she believes it is most important that she did her best to advocate for the client and to keep looking forward. Some cases, she says, are filled with “small victories.” She often finds the clients are satisfied with any outcome as long as they feel they were given a voice and fair treatment. For Franklin-Best, the most important thing her team is doing for their clients is to help them feel heard and humanized.