She wanted to work for the best. He found the best in her

Updated: Apr 8, 2018

When Mississippi residents facing criminal charges need legal representation, they immediately think of Tom Fortner.

Tom, who has represented citizens accused of all types of felony crimes over 36 years, thinks of someone else.

He thinks of Valerie Moss Andrews.

It may seem like a strange dichotomy. Valerie only graduated two years ago from law school.

Young and ambitious, she was unique in that where other law students struggled to find what kind of practice best suited their skill; she already knew where she belonged.

It all started in the pages of a book.

“When I was in high school, I read John Grisham’s nonfiction work, The Innocent Man. It was the story of a man who was wrongly convicted of rape and murder and sentenced to death, said Valerie. “The man was later exonerated by new DNA evidence with the help of the Innocence Project. This book always haunted me because it portrayed the extremely troubling idea and reality that an innocent person could easily be convicted of a crime they didn’t commit.”

During law school, Valerie began working with the Mississippi branch of the Innocence Project.

“The program instilled a passion for criminal defense in me, and I never looked back,” Valerie said.

She was called to criminal defense law.

Valerie didn’t want to practice with just anyone, though. She was determined to find work with an attorney or firm that would concentrate primarily in criminal defense. She wanted to work for the best of the best.

She wanted to work for Tom Fortner.

He knew she was special the minute he met her.

“By coincidence she had been a close friend of my niece in undergraduate and graduate school, and my niece and sister both encouraged her to talk with me about how to get started,” said Tom. “I was impressed with Valerie’s success in law school- Law Journal, excellent grades and recommendations. It was her dedication to the clinical criminal defense programs at the law school that most impressed me.”

Tom’s career is prolific. Sporting his signature silver ponytail, he has tried hundreds of cases to verdict before juries.

“He knows how to do it all, truly. But the thing I find most remarkable about him is his ability to read the facts and evidence surrounding a case and come up with the most bizarre yet brilliant ideas on how to approach the case, “ Valerie said.

So how does a young, fiery lawyer impress upon a man who has seen, and tried it all?

Their partnership was never intended to be, but it was always meant to be.

Tom has worked on his own for years. He wasn’t looking for assistance until Valerie came along.

Valerie displayed characteristics unheard of for her age.

Her single-minded determination to represent citizens accused of crimes was unique for most law school graduates.

She was not willing to settle for just any job in the legal field- she was willing to search and hold out for the career she felt called to.

“Although I had not been searching for an attorney to assist me, these positive characteristics convinced me to offer Valerie a position,” Tom said.

Thus, began a powerful duo. Their combined skill sets were bizarre, yet right.

Valerie considers herself high strung and task oriented while Tom’s calm nature leads to organized chaos.

It was both their combined idiosyncrasies that led to an unparalleled practice.

But it also most importantly led to an unparalleled friendship.

In less than two years, Valerie’s accomplishments in federal court have stunned Tom.

Valerie has co-counseled with Tom in two capital murder trials; one resulted in a not guilty verdict and one resulted in a hung jury.

One case in particular stands out in both their minds.

“The case I am most proud of so far was a federal case in Jackson because I argued it on my own,” Valerie said. “It was a motion to dismiss an indictment based on a violation of my client’s constitutional right to compulsory process of witnesses on his behalf. The Federal Judge granted it, and the charges against my client were dropped. The family and I were both ecstatic.”

She has also appeared in numerous court hearings, and has already researched, written and filed several briefs in the Mississippi Supreme Court.

Valerie has qualified for and been appointed to several criminal cases in the Federal District Courts in Mississippi.

If you ask Tom, that’s unheard of.

“These are notable accomplishments for a lawyer who graduated from law school less than two years ago,” Tom said.

It isn’t just Valerie’s resume that makes her such a talented criminal defense attorney. Her approach with clients and cases are handled with the utmost care and passion.

“Her preparation for a DUI case is no less than her preparation for the most serious felony cases we handle,” Tom said. “I have yet to meet another lawyer as young as Valerie who has already found their specific calling in the type of law she feels called to practice. I suspect the defense of citizens accused of crimes will be a life-long career for her, as it has been for me.”

Although that passion is her strength, it is also every lawyer’s weakness—including Valerie’s.

“Every successful case comes with one that doesn’t go the way you wanted, and I tend to focus more on those cases because I want to learn from each and every mistake and never make it again, “ Valerie said. “I tend to get extremely passionate about cases, and sometimes that can be to my detriment.”

This doesn’t concern Tom in the slightest.

“As with all lawyers, Valerie struggles with maintaining that separation- however, it is obvious that she recognizes when those boundaries are blurred and she seeks advice and counsel to avoid that pitfall,” Tom said.

Valerie’s passion combined with Tom’s guidance has created a force to be reckoned with, something anyone facing a criminal charge would want in their attorney.

“Her work ethic is her secret weapon,” Tom said. “Her research and writing skills are impressive, her investigative skills likewise, and her determination to be completely prepared before moving forward with a case makes her a formidable adversary.”

Those characteristics are why Tom is confident in her representation of any of his own clients should he choose to retire from the practice of law.

She isn’t done learning yet, and will be unstoppable once it is time for Tom to step aside.

“I learn something new from Tom almost every day, but his ability to work a courtroom is the most valuable asset that I strive to accomplish,” Valerie said.

Tom’s clients trust him, and it is easy to see why.

But Tom trusts Valerie, and he knows that she will one day take his place in the courtroom.

“Clients can trust Valerie to zealously represent them and their interests,” Tom said. “She will not be outworked, and she will always be thoroughly prepared when she goes to court.”

There will be a day when Tom hangs up his coat, and lets down his long, signature ponytail.

He will remain his calm, collected self not just because it is his nature, but because he knows the people of Mississippi will be left in the very capable hands of Valerie Moss Andrews.

Learn more about Valerie here.

Learn more about Tom here.

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