Bad jokes, outrageous commercials and implausible television characters may come to mind when people think about lawyers – until they need a lawyer.
“The practice of the law is a noble profession,” says John M. Mussetto. “Lawyers get a bad rap. It’s interesting that when something bad happens to somebody, the first thing people do is call a lawyer.”
Mussetto practices criminal, family, divorce and DUI law through his own firm in Greenville.
A Greenville native, Mussetto became interested in politics and the law while watching the news each night with his father, who explained that many politicians are also lawyers.
Politics gave way to law when Mussetto accepted an opportunity to be a courier at a law firm while he was a student at Furman University.
“That was my first experience with a law firm,” he says. “I started at the bottom, running papers to and from the courthouse.”
After Furman and the Mississippi College School of Law, Mussetto clerked for Judge D. Garrison Hill, and then joined the Mooneyham, Berry and Karow firm in Greenville.
In 2011, he founded his own firm, The Law Offices of John M. Mussetto, LLC.
“Many other lawyers just push papers all day long,” he says. “I like to be in courtrooms, advocating for clients, helping them go through difficult times.”
Mussetto says he enjoys the independence of running his own firm. “You get a certain level of freedom, but you have more responsibilities, as well. You can’t just leave work and not think about it until you go back the next day.”
In 2020, he bought the striking white building at Pettigru and Toy streets. Constructed in 1910, it was once home to the Bannister law firm.
The clients Mussetto sees there are almost always facing serious problems.
“It’s a tough field. When my phone rings, it’s when people are going through very challenging situations – whether it’s dealing with an arrest or going through a divorce or a custody situation. So, a lot of what I do is crisis control,” he says.
“Our office is keen on helping people. We reassure them, ‘You may not see the light in the tunnel now, but I promise you that it is there. Your case will come to a close. There will be a resolution, though sometimes you have to make it worse before you make it better.’ I look at it as providing a service to the community.”
Mussetto prides himself on his relationships with clients.
“Once I build that trust, my clients know that I will have only their best interest in mind. I’ll advocate for them. I will give them straight answers. Once that rapport is built, it’s easier to manage client expectations. Some of the best relationships are the ones that have taken me a long time to build,” he says.
Those clients return to him if they encounter other problems, and also refer their friends and family members.
“Now, if there’s a legal issue, they call me up, we have a conversation, and they know I will always shoot straight with them and be honest with them,” he says.
“There have been many bonds forged with clients and clients’ families over the years. I’m their ‘family lawyer.’ That is a compliment to me and my practice, getting repeat customers and word-of-mouth referrals.”
Mussetto is happy to address tough questions about his profession.
“I get asked frequently, ‘How do you reconcile the moral dilemma of representing someone who’s been criminally charged with a crime?’ I love that question.”
Mussetto’s response is two-fold.
“First, it’s in our constitution: innocent until proven guilty. The law states that a person, if they’re convicted of a crime, must be proven guilty beyond all reasonable doubt.”
If a jury deliberates and hesitates to find someone guilty, it means that the state has not met its burden of proof, he says.
“Most intelligent, educated people would say that even if a person does commit a crime, but there is not sufficient evidence to prove they committed a crime, then that person shouldn’t be found guilty. That’s what separates us from North Korea and Russia, he says.
“My job is to make sure that the state can meet their burden, that they have enough evidence against my client to convict.”
Another part of Mussetto’s job is to ensure that if someone is convicted or pleads guilty, the punishment fits the crime.
“I look at all the evidence. I negotiate with the prosecutors and make sure they receive a just amount of prison time, or a just amount of probation time, or a just amount of fine. That’s what justice is.”
He views family law cases in the same way. “Family law is clear regarding the division of assets and debts and alimony,” he says. He gathers evidence and facts to get the best results for his client – “whether my client is on moral high ground or not. It’s a balancing act … push and pull … and that’s how our system was designed.”
If a couple is fighting over custody, the judge will appoint a guardian ad litem (a layperson or a lawyer) to represent the interests of the child.
In South Carolina, couples and their lawyers must go through mediation if they cannot come to an agreement about assets or custody. If mediation fails, the case goes to court. (Mussetto says 90% of his cases, family and criminal, are resolved without a trial.) If the dispute is not an emergency, a divorce could take nine to 14 months to complete.
Despite the crises that bring clients to his door, Mussetto is happy and proud to work in the field he learned about so long ago.
“I’ve had opportunities to grow the firm, but I keep it small on purpose. I’m proud of that small law firm feeling. I come to work, and I see my office, and I see the clients that I serve, and I get enjoyment out of it. … It is work, but it isn’t. I couldn’t see myself doing anything else.”