All defenders – whether under court appointment or government contract or in a defender office – experience days in which they find themselves sunk to the farthest depths of despair and despondency. Theses feeling are brought on by the unusual travails of a burdensome caseload, demanding and needy clients, unsympathetic judges, and predatory prosecutors.
If a client’s needs and desires oscillate like the gloomy, dark figures of a Goya painting, and a defense lawyer leaves the jail or court feeling like she or he stepped out of the carnage of Guernica, Perhaps this article will provide some practical and inspirational assistance.
1) Triage and Manage Cases. Learn to handle large caseload. Delegate, triage, and live by the calendar, but avoid overload. A defender who finds himself weighed down should seek help from people above and below. It is important to know the ABA and state ethics opinions on defender caseloads, and to use these opinions when interacting with supervisors or courts. This means adhering to the ethical admonition to refuse new cases and, if necessary, to withdraw from current case. Obtain help outside the local system from entities such as NACDL, NLADA, the ABA, and the state governing ethics body. Contact the NACDL Strike Force if a formal contempt is in the offing. Defenders have an obligation to provide competent representation to indigents, and defender status does not exempt them from that duty of quality representation.
2) Appreciate clients’ humanity and do not denigrate them. Unlike civil lawyers criminal defense attorneys are in the business of freedom. Unlike prosecutors, defense attorneys are the alter ego of their clients. Defense attorneys must never forget the awesome professional responsibilities they have. These responsibilities require each defender to be a consummate professional and treat clients with dignity. Be not only their fearless advocate, but a compassionate witness to their humanity, with all their flaws and faults. Do not denigrate clients, call them names, or gossip about their cases outside their presence, and in the presence of courts, prosecutors or others in the justice system. And if a defender must vent in the office, he or she should be cautions because clients sometimes have mental issues, personality disorders, and other behaviors and habits that will continually challenge him or her during the representation. Obtain the assistance of a social worker, counselor, or other mental health professional if a client has pressing psychological issues. Constant whining will affect an attorney’s attitude towards clients, and ultimately will affect the quality of representation. The client is why defenders do what they do; it is not the defender’s job to please judges, prosecutors, or other players in the criminal justice system. Do not join the “just us” closed circle of favorites, but remain loyal to the one and only justice system. Always be the clients’ loyal defender and advocate, and do not violate their confidence and trust.
3) Be a professional. A defense attorney should act like the lawyer and licensed professional that he or she is – whether she is a fledgling defender or a “lifer.” Be timely, communicate promptly and courteously, dress like a professional, and always know the ethics rules and live by them. Obtain immediate advice when the outer limits of the rules are reached. Join professional organizations for the support, mentoring, and outreach they provide. Take advantage of organizations that offer special Public Defender Office rates or free seminars and other services. Develop relationships within those organizations whether in person, by phone, or online. A defender who likes a particular practice area should consider making a request to specialize in that niche. Enlist interns in the office to assist in cases and inculcate in them a respect for indigent defense practice. Network with private lawyers and firms and seek pro bono assistance from them. Remember that many formerly young defenders have evolved into nationally know civil attorneys, judges, and legal commentators. If and when an individual decides not to be a public defender anymore, she or he can comfortably transition to private practice and can credit her defender experience with levitating him or her to that higher plane.
4) To thine own self be true, and take a break. Defense attorneys are warriors in the ongoing battle continually waged against clients’ constitutional rights, and thus defender must be mentally and physically fit. Un-managed stress, which lets adrenalin run rampant in the body, will rob defenders of their physical health and sanity. Get some valuable equanimity and maintain it. Schedule a modicum of physical activity each day – bike, run, dance – keep the body moving. On the other hand, there will be some days when a nap or simply sitting still or meditating will be a better way to recharge drained energy. The point is all people must know their inherent physiology and hold true to their physical and mental needs. That includes asking for help or time off when needed. Maintain good health by taking breaks – a weekend off, a night off, a vacation, or family or medical leave. Vacations are an essential benefit – not a lavish “perk.” Take mini-vacations, and make them a habit.
5) Get organized and stay organized. Defenders will have larger caseloads, but less support, than an attorney in the private sector. Defenders, however, serve the cause of freedom and , in the process, have more fun and acquire hilarious and sobering war stories. As warriors for the Constitution, defenders will run the endless gauntlet of human experience. Develop a daily routine and office habits, and live by them. Organize case files and stay on top of them daily. Co-workers love it when they can easily locate another colleague’s files, and they are not reluctant to work cooperatively with someone who is organized. Once established, good work habits become reflexive and are followed without even thinking about them. While mature defenders fondly talk about the good old days of manuel typewriters and carbon paper, the computerization of law offices enables one to be incredibly efficient. Use modern technology resources to their maximum potential. Smart phones, laptops, and iPads free an attorney from the physical confines of the office, but an attorney should not allow these devices to tether him or her indefinitely to cases and clients.
6) Be on sure footing in the courtroom. Get in to the courtroom and become comfortable there – for trials and hearing, not just guilty pleas. By working hard at trial advocacy skills, a defender can develop substantial expertise and a comfort level that many civil lawyers in large law firms never have the opportunity to achieve. The stakes patience, discipline, and practice; such skills are slowly developed, not bought or gained quickly. Learn to take pleasure and pride in the process of advocacy. Humility will go a long way towards gaining invaluable and earned confidence. Find a mentor and consult with him or her when there are doubts, when guidance is needed, or when downheartedness arises. Whether the court is in a rural area or a big city, know how to practice in the forum. Develop a rapport with court personnel. They can be utterly incalculable, for many reason, and it is a joy to interact with the,. Court personnel might have insights into jurors, witnesses, and to her aspects of advocacy an attorney will never have. When an attorney finds his or her wings in the courtroom, she will be able to control that forum, win cases for clients, and have a level of comfort and confidence that is unparalleled, In addition as he or she develops a reputation for trying cases, he or she will be able to timely settle the cases that should not proceed to trial, as prosecutors learn that, when necessary, she will take cases to trial. Obtaining excellent results without going to trial is the well -deserved product of a defense attorney having honed and practiced her advocacy skills.
7) Plan an activity to alleviate stress. When a defender has a tough hearing, trial, or other unfortunate appointment that he or she knows will be stressful, he or she should plan a break afterwards to help him or her make it through the stressful event he may be dreading. Learn to leave the law and client behind. Plan a breakthrough event, whether it is simply coffee, beer with buddies, a meal at a favorite restaurant, a ball game, or playing with the kids. All lawyers practice at the expense of developing a larger-than-life ego. Healthy ego strength is essential for this demanding professional work, nut every lawyer needs to leave it sometime and take periodic breaks. Learn to downgrade the ego and the manic drive and intensity that are particularized to litigation counsel. Practice nonchalance and hone listening skills rather than war story telling skills. At first, this may be difficult and an uncomfortable fit. But when an advocate starts completing his friends’ sentences in social settings and talking about the law incessantly, it may be time to back off and take a break. Do not regard this retreat as client abandonment or weakness; compassion fatigue, formerly known as burnout, run rampant in the defender and other processionals. Defenders and people in other professions need strategies to help recognize fatigue, fend it off, or deal with it promptly.
8) After leaving a defender office, continue to provide support to fledgling defenders and offices. Many defenders “graduate” to supervising other defenders, private practice, the bench, or academia. They should come back from time to time. A great way to stay connected to defense comrades is to informally mentor young defenders or accept court appointments. Defenders will, in turn, supply the “graduate” with inculpable tips and insider information about plea practices and a court’s predilections on bail and sentencing that private counsel may not see on a regular basis. Accepting some of the most difficult defendants will gain an attorney much appreciation from defender offices and the local judiciary. Always be a best friend to defenders, former defenders, and anyone else who has chosen the “business of freedom.”
Author: Penelope S. Strong
The Morales Law Firm would like to thank The National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers Champion for sharing this information with us. (March 2012)