“I don’t ever network,” 28-year-old criminal defense attorney Nicole Fegan tells me on the phone, a sentiment that resonates. An attorney myself, I’ve always found “networking” unnatural and uncomfortable, particularly when other lawyers are involved, most of whom are conservative white men — not my ideal audience. But Fegan is changing the game, providing hope where not much existed before, particularly not in law, and especially not in this column.
“I just do Instagram marketing,” Fegan tells me on her client-outreach strategy. And in fact, it was after a friend alerted me to Fegan’s Instagram that I became fascinated by her. All my lawyer friends are secretive as hell on the Internet. We’re constantly monitored by our local bar associations; to pass, we must pass a “moral character” test. This renders us paranoid to share anything on the internet that might jeopardize our careers. In sharp contrast, Fegan Instagram’s feed features her posing with guns and large stacks of money — props, she assures me (“I know the best prop guy in Atlanta”) — and wearing merch promoting her trademark slogan “Got Proof” over blunt-smoking red lips. In Atlanta, Fegan is frequently known as “Ms. Got Proof” — a moniker that took off after she represented rapper Peewee Longway, who afterwards wrote her a song called “Take that Shit to Trial.”
Fegan tells me that whenever she goes out in Atlanta, people want to take pictures. People have even tried to take selfies with her in the courthouse elevator. In her most recent trial, the judge called sidebar just after she finished her closing when she noticed he was Googling her. “He did that on the county computer so I definitely can subpoena it,” she tells me, then moves onto an impassioned non-sequitur, showcasing an animated speaking style that I imagine would work well in a courtroom. “And my whole fucking case was about my guy’s cellphone. He fucking googled ‘does God forgive murderers?’ and I’m like, ‘Why didn’t you read the Bible? What the fuck does Google know?’”
Fegan decided to go to law school after catching her own criminal charges for “intent to distribute” in college. The experience highlighted to her the unfairness of the system. “The state prosecutor really puts your back against the wall,” she tells me. “You either have to do what they say or you fight, and if you fight there’s such a risk involved that most people don’t.”
“So you took a plea?” I ask.
“No I fought it.” She won the trial, which “fueled” her. Afterwards, she “switched it all the way up.” A self-proclaimed “bum” in college, Fegan graduated magna cum laude at John Marshall Law School. In law school, she interned for Parag Shah, a well-known Atlanta criminal defense attorney, judge, and adjunct law professor. They met when she invited him to speak at a Georgia Association for Women Lawyers event in law school, and his brazen attitude made her want to work with him. “He’s different now because he’s a judge,” Fegan told me. “But after a few drinks at the strip club, he’ll be eating chicken wings with you.”
After she graduated, Shah helped Fegan “set up shop” on her own. But first, Fegan had to join the bar, which involved being questioned about her criminal past before 10 lawyers, a psychologist, and a stenographer. When they asked her why she thought she was searched for drugs, she responded “because I had a black man with me.”
Shah told me she knew Nicole was special from the moment he met her. Not only was she “hardworking, ambitious, and passionate,” but she had a strong “sense of justice.” Fegan recently designed a free app called “Got Proof,” which educates Georgia residents on their rights and breaks down how to behave when pulled over, a project that doesn’t make money but which Fegan feels is important. As her website announces, “Got Proof” promotes the idea throughout the community that “knowledge is power” and the “general population should know their rights.”
In addition to her commitment to justice, Fegan clearly loves winning — she only takes cases where her client is willing to go to trial. And she isn’t even a little bit humble, which is refreshing in a female lawyer, who tend to be wracked with imposter syndrome. “I just came back with a verdict on Monday,” Fegan tells me early in our call. “It was a 150-count indictment on an 18-year-old kid, and they didn’t find him guilty on the murder, on anything.” Her Instagram boasts that she’s the “youngest lawyer to win a murder trial.” She was 25. I ask how she knows this, and she said she’s done research and hasn’t found any evidence to the contrary. Most impressively, she tried the case herself.
“My client is my co-counsel,” she tells me, explaining that her firm is just her. “Two things,” she tells me regarding her decision to work closely with her clients throughout every stage of the trial. “There is nobody better to know their case than themselves. And there is nobody better to beat a criminal case than a criminal.”
She says that what separates her from the old white men who saturate the field is her passion, and the fact that she always listens to her clients. She spends hours before trial going to jail for visits, even if she has nothing specific to discuss. “I just know they wanna know that someone is thinking about them.”
I ask her how she navigates the strictly legal portions of the trial without another lawyer helping her. “Objections are all me,” she says, “but when a witness lies or doesn’t want to admit some stuff, we’re both on that.” I feel validated when she admits that trial “really has nothing to do with the law.” She expands, “It’s really about finesse. It’s all about who has the best story.” As I wrote in a previous article advocating for restorative justice, trial is often more about showmanship than about truth-finding. Accordingly, Australian professor and former attorney Kate Galloway called trial a “performance piece.”
And Fegan has that performance down. “If I’m in the city,” she tells me. “I’m gonna, like, be cute.” She has cases all over Georgia, some up to nine hours from Atlanta. “If I’m in the country, I’m in a polo and pearls.” Shah told me that watching Fegan in court is as “exciting and interesting as watching a Netflix documentary.” She has an innate ability, he told me, to “bring life to the words in a report or indictment” and get to the humanity of criminal cases.
Fegan is inspiring in not allowing implicit bias get to her. Peeway Longway admitted to her that he was initially skeptical when his girlfriend told him to hire a “young white girl.” He didn’t trust her until the first bond hearing, when she proved herself with a favorable result. Fegan brushes off Longway’s earlier comment, explaining: “I demand respect. Nobody really messes with me.” Shah confirmed that Nicole will “never back down from a fight” and will confront those many lawyers “still living in the stone ages.”
When I asked Shah about Fegan’s Instagram, he responded, simply, “I love it.” For a client to trust you, he told me, they have to know you and be able to connect with you. “Social media has allowed an avenue for clients to develop that trust with their lawyers.” Fegan’s Instagram gives her clients a glimpse at how hardworking, passionate, and charming she is. Shah referred to Fegan as the “Lebron James of the legal world,” concluding that he was “just happy to have had the opportunity to play a small part in her journey.”
At the end of our call, I ask Fegan whether she has any advice to young women attorneys. She tells me her mom was very against her going solo, and worried that Fegan wouldn’t be able to make money or pay off her loans. But Fegan tells me she had to be genuine to who she was, and “people feed off that.” And she’s had no trouble finding work, explaining that she has to give referrals all the time. And with her own interns, she doesn’t set them up to work for her, rather she trains them to eventually work for themselves. She tells me Shah did the same for her, and in fact refused to hire her when she tried to get a job with him after graduation (but “he’ll deny that shit to to the end.”) “You have to have the balls — I know you said advice to women, but still,” she says, “you have to have the balls to do it.”