LEADERSHIP IN LAW 2020: John Gallo

IL photo/Eric Learned

Born in the hills of Ohio, John Gallo grew up with a connection to the local courthouse and pursued a career in law to make a positive difference for people in sometimes trying circumstances. Since coming to Indianapolis in 2013, he’s risen in the Marion County Public Defender Agency to become assistant chief of the busy Level 6 Felony Division. He also quickly found community in the Circle City by volunteering for Indy Reads Books and as an active member of the Indianapolis Bar Association, among other pursuits.

Growing up in a small Ohio Appalachian community, when did you first become interested in law? 

I grew up in the county seat of a small rural county on the Ohio River. Our courthouse was the biggest building on the square, and I remember my dad taking me with him sometimes as he talked to judges (he worked for the courts). It seemed extremely glamorous. When I broached the idea of a legal career to my mother, she cautioned me that it “was a lot of paperwork.” We were both right. Jury trials? Glamorous. Motions practice? Less so.

What brought you to Indianapolis after graduating from law school in Cincinnati? 

In my third year of law school, I participated in the University of Cincinnati’s Indigent Defense Clinic. At that point, I knew I wanted to be a public defender. I applied and interviewed with agencies all over the county. Luckily, I landed in Indianapolis and at the best agency in the region.

What attracted you to public service, particularly serving as a public defender? 

Growing up middle class in a rural county, I realized that a lot of my success was thanks to growing up with a supportive mom and dad. As a teenager, I understood I had a responsibility to give back. In law school, I worked for Mark Godsey and the Ohio Innocence Project. I saw dozens of cases where people were sunk by ineffective counsel. Becoming a public defender, I could help clients on the front lines. Now as a supervisor, I can help young attorneys learn to become zealous and effective advocates.

A colleague said you are “the bridge that connects people from various backgrounds.” How do you do that?

Empathy. I’m lucky (and sometimes unlucky) to be able to see things from other people’s perspectives. I try to understand someone’s specific circumstances and help them. If I can’t, I try to connect them with someone who can. My wife has a motto I love: “Leave a campsite better than you find it.” I want to do that; leave friends, colleagues and clients in a better place than where they started.

If you could change one law, what would that be? 

Why stop at one? Decriminalize narcotics, take the money we’re spending on policing and locking people up, and spend it on robust and comprehensive drug treatment. Treat addiction like a public health crisis instead of a crime.

What do you most like to do when you have free time? 

Lately, I’ve been writing short plays. I’m lucky to have a couple produced around town, and I’m hoping to write a full-length this year. Other than that, I enjoy reading for book club, watching sports with the guys, cooking and going to art museums with my very patient wife.

Why is volunteering with Indy Reads and other community involvement important to you? 

When I moved to Indianapolis, I didn’t know anyone. I started volunteering at Indy Reads Books because I thought it would be a good way to make friends. It worked out incredibly well. I made my best friends in the city helping out at the bookstore. This is why I’m a poor volunteer; I tend to get more out of the experience than I can possibly give. Helping folks is rewarding and, of course, makes the city a better place.

What advice would you give your younger self? 

Don’t be so hard on yourself. There are a ton of internal and external pressures on you. While those pressures won’t go away, they lessen with time. Give yourself the space and permission to feel better, and take comfort in your friends and loved ones. Also, don’t get your hopes up for the last “Skywalker”; it’s a massive disappointment.

Who is someone who mentored you, and what did you learn from them? 

Dr. Bill Coleman, a former professor at Mount Union College. Dr. Coleman is my strongest political influence and a true progressive. During the hours I spent hanging out in his office, he taught me the power of righteous anger and how when harnessed it can be an enormous engine for good. Most importantly, he taught me tenacity. At a low moment, Dr. Coleman gave me a quiet but hard talk which boiled down to “suck it up and get back in the fight.” I think about that conversation all the time. Dr. Coleman taught me to never stop fighting. I haven’t.

Where do you see yourself professionally in another 10 years? 

I hope to remain involved in public service, be it at the PD agency, in the nonprofit sector or on the bench. There are so many good people trying to make this city better. My main goal is to keep working with them.•
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