ASU Law grad makes history as first female Maricopa County Attorney
Allister Adel always knew she wanted to be a prosecutor. And there was one job, in particular, that she desired above all others.
“I had always said that if the stars aligned, and my dream job of county attorney came open, that I had to try,” said Adel, a 2004 graduate of the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law at Arizona State University.
The stars began to align when Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery was appointed to the Arizona Supreme Court in September. A month later, the dream job was Adel’s when the county Board of Supervisors chose her to serve out the remainder of Montgomery’s term.
And with the selection, Adel was added to Arizona’s long list of trailblazing women, as she became the first female county attorney in the history of the state’s most populous county.
“On a personal level, this hasn't quite hit me yet, the historic nature of it,” she said. “People tell me how historic it is and amazing, and I'm just taking it all in. At the same time, I understand the responsibility that comes with this job, and I want to work hard and make everyone proud. The fact that I'm the first woman in this position is humbling, but I am going to prove that gender is not the barrier here. I want to be an example for young women that demonstrates you can work hard and achieve your goals and be a wife, a mother, a community member. This responsibility is not lost on me.”
ASU Law Dean Douglas Sylvester knows she is up to the task.
“From her time at ASU Law, Allister has always been a driven leader with a keen sense of justice,” he said. “She is perfectly suited not only to lead the Maricopa County attorney’s office, but also to serve as a role model for others, and ASU Law could not be more proud to count her among our esteemed alumni.”
Valuable lessons learned at ASU Law
As a political science major at the University of Arizona, Adel minored in criminal justice and soon realized she wanted to pursue a career in government. She was planning to attend law school, but wanted to be sure going in that she had a plan for when she got out.
“I had interned for Sen. John McCain in college, and it was an outstanding, amazing experience,” she said. “I saw how having a law degree was very helpful. And it led me to think that if I'm going to spend three years of my life and the money to go to law school, I need to know what kind of law I'm going to want to practice. At that point, I was enjoying criminal justice but I knew I did not want to be a police officer. So, I did some soul-searching and decided that I wanted to be a prosecutor and that is the entire reason I went to law school: to be a prosecutor.”
With her future husband landing a job in the financial industry in the Phoenix area, Adel was drawn to ASU Law, where she set out on her career path. She didn’t quite know what to expect from law school, but admits to being rattled after reading the 1977 book “One L: An Inside Account of Life in the First Year at Harvard Law School,” an autobiographical account from author Scott Turow.
“That absolutely terrified me before I started, but I couldn’t have had a better experience at ASU Law,” Adel said. “I spent the first year, like many people, kind of getting reprogrammed on how to think more critically and logically. And it was one of the most extraordinary experiences of my life.”
Despite having spent her undergrad years in Tucson, Adel took to ASU right away.
“To be in law school at ASU, which is so innovative and progressive, I was so proud to be a part of a large university with a great reputation,” she said. “At the same time, the law school is like a small family. The shared experience of it all, where you're learning new things, and you're having these incredible academic discussions with your classmates, and you're trying to find your way, is special. One day you're wearing shorts and flip-flops, and the next you’re wearing business suits. Going through that evolution with your peers is a remarkable experience.”
She is thankful not only for the top-notch legal training she received, but also for the career guidance she got along the way. And she notes the benefit of the support network that comes with a degree from ASU Law.
“I'm so glad that I was at ASU Law because the caliber of the professors and the class offerings that prepared me so well to be a lawyer,” she said. “They also drove home the fact that your peers or your colleagues may be your supervisor one day. That network of ASU alums is so strong and we can draw on it anytime, and I'm grateful to be part of that.”
She has fond recollections of her three years at ASU Law, of friendships and fun mixed in with serious academic undertakings. There were ping-pong tournaments in the basement of Armstrong Hall, and she helped start a student trial lawyers association. But nothing tops the vivid memory of graduation day at Gammage Auditorium, standing at the podium as one of the commencement speakers.
“I remember like it was yesterday,” she said. “Looking out at my colleagues, I was so incredibly proud of every single one of them and overwhelmed. And I just had this sense of excitement and hope about what great things everyone was going to accomplish. And I distinctly remember being at that podium and just looking out at family and friends, and it humbled me, because it was such an honor to be chosen to be standing there.”
The path to county attorney
Throughout law school, Adel remained focused on her goal of becoming a prosecutor.
“I can think of no other job as a lawyer that has more meaning and purpose to it,” she said. “While it's a difficult job and bears so much responsibility, it's incredibly rewarding.”
Upon graduating from ASU Law, she went to work at the Maricopa County attorney’s office, where she had interned. She was in the Vehicular Crimes Unit, working on the type of cases she had always been drawn to: felony DUIs and vehicular homicides.
“That area of law to me was intriguing because there's a lot of science to it, and you have to be skilled on different nuances in the law,” she said. “But you also have the honor to work with victims and next of kin in a meaningful manner, and while that was a difficult part of the job, it was also very rewarding.”
She received a phone call one day from a retired Phoenix police lieutenant who had moved on to the Arizona Department of Transportation and he told her the ADOT director was looking for a lawyer with DUI experience to run their executive hearing office.
After the conversation, she took a leap of faith, leaving for ADOT to become the agency’s chief administrative law judge. She found herself running an office with a budget of more than $3 million and 45 employees, supervising administrative law judges.
“That body at the time did nearly 20,000 cases a year, so I managed a quasi-judicial body,” she said. “I learned about everything from strategic planning to legislation to IT and a variety of administrative duties.”
As she built her career, she was also building a broad base of community involvement. Among her associations, she is a past president of the Phoenix Rotary Club and remains heavily involved with the organization; she’s on the board of the 100 Club of Arizona; and she served as executive director of the Maricopa County Bar Association.
All the while, as she was developing different skill sets, she continued to think about the county attorney’s office.
“In the back of my mind, I had always said that if the county attorney’s job came open, I wanted to go for it. I still cared so deeply about the office, the work that's done there, and the people,” she said. “And I very much missed being a prosecutor.”
As fate would have it, the opportunity presented itself, and she threw her hat in the ring. But on the day of the appointment, she was monitoring the selection process and assumed she had fallen out of the running when the County Board of Supervisors tweeted out that a live vote would be broadcast on YouTube to pick the next county attorney.
“I thought, ‘Well, I didn't get it. They didn't call me.’ And I logged on to YouTube with everyone else,” she said. “I was texting some of my family, telling them ‘I don't think it's me, and I'm really sad about this, but that's OK.’ And we're watching the feed and then — we hear my name. And we all kind of just stopped and said, ‘Did we hear that right?’ And sure enough, they had said my name.”
So she found out through a livestream on YouTube, just like everybody else. Soon the board’s chairman, Bill Gates, was calling to congratulate her.
“Then he said, ‘You need to get down here in an hour— you're being sworn in,’” she said. “So I called my husband and said, ‘Get on a suit. We’ve got to go!’”
Embracing the role
The Maricopa County attorney’s office is one of the largest public prosecutorial agencies in the nation, and the work goes far beyond just prosecution. Adel has a transition team in place, helping to identify high-level strategic priorities, including the formation of citizen advisory boards to help further one of her primary goals: being collaborative.
“When I say collaborative, it’s not just with the community and the public,” she said. “I want to collaborate with the courts, law enforcement, other stakeholders, legislators, people that just want to see our criminal justice system be the best it can be.”
She’s made a strong initial impression, garnering several high-profile endorsements in her first month on the job.
“As a proven rule-of-law prosecutor and champion of victims' rights, I’m proud to endorse Allister Adel for Maricopa County attorney,” said Mark Brnovich, Arizona’s attorney general. “Her expertise and professionalism will serve the people of Maricopa County and provide a strong partner for all of Arizona’s prosecutorial agencies in our shared commitment to the administration of justice.”
She received similar praise from former U.S. Sen. Jon Kyl, a longtime colleague of one of her most influential mentors, John McCain.
“Allister Adel is uniquely qualified to continue to serve as Maricopa County attorney,” Kyl said. “She has a strong record as a law-and-order prosecutor, and has a strong reputation in the greater Phoenix legal community. She is a thoughtful, careful attorney who will seek justice on behalf of innocent victims in Maricopa County.”
While Adel wants to improve collaboration outside the office, she’s looking inward as well. She says she never wants to be the type of person to make decisions in a vacuum, so she welcomes different opinions. And she wants to ensure a strong relationship between the executive team of the county attorney and everyone else in the office.
“I want everyone to have a very keen understanding that the work they do matters,” she said. “I want everyone to see how it fits into our mission. Whether you're doing data entry, whether you're a prosecutor, whether you're in the civil division, you’re a paralegal or you're doing support work in information technology, the work you do matters. The people here are amazing. They are so proud to be in this organization, and it's my job to make sure that they continue to do the great work that they do.”
The honor of being chosen to lead such an agency is still somewhat surreal.
“I still pinch myself,” she said. “It is a dream come true.”