It’s hard to pick who the worst Roman emperor was, but Nero is definitely in the running. Aside from maybe fiddling while the great city burned, killing his mother, and castrating a slave who bore a passing resemblance to his dead wife and then forcing the slave to pretend to be her for the rest of both of their lives, he was also a drama queen and a poor general who didn’t command any respect from the people he was leading.
Once, during the dark days of his rule, an insurrection threatened the safety of the whole Empire. Nero decided that the best way to handle this violent coup was to arrive on the battlefield in ornate carriages, surrounded by actors dressed in fanciful costumes and prostitutes dressed like Amazons dancing to the music of the most talented musicians in Rome. Once they arrived, Nero himself would take the lead, proclaiming his great sorrow and heartbreak at having been betrayed by those who had risen up against him. His performance, he insisted, would be so moving, that the opposition forces would lay down their arms and weep at their betrayal of their once-beloved (not really) emperor, and everyone would rejoice.
I’m sure the feeling of everyone in the room when Nero announced his plans felt sick. Not only was this stupid, it was deadly-stupid. It didn’t only risk his life, but the lives of everyone who stood behind him.
Spoiler alert: it didn’t happen that way, and instead it was the beginning of the end for the emperor who likely inspired a goodly portion of the book of Revelations.
Sometimes, it seems, the enemy is not at the gates, but inside of them.
As a public defender, we have a lot of fights to fight. The great and oppressive Machine of the State, first and foremost. Our clients, sometimes (if I had a nickel for every awesome plea I worked out, only for my client to fail to appear…I’d have at least $20). Compassion fatigue. Financial pressure. Student loan debt. Personal burnout. But the worst fights I’ve had to fight are the ones inside the gates: the other lawyers in my office.
I feel strange writing this piece more than most of the things I’ve written about this career. We struggle a lot, already, with reputation in this business. I love all of the good PR we get. I love Jon Rapping and Gideon’s Promise and all of the amazing things NAPD does and what all of the local organizations are doing to dispel the public perception of public defenders as somehow less-than-lawyers, and instead show the truth about the zealous, creative advocacy that PD’s around the country are doing.
And yet…Sometimes there are lawyers in our offices who deserve the bad rap.
Listen and attend: I got involved in a case a while back because the lawyer had called out sick and I covered a court setting for her. This is fairly common in most offices, at least where I have worked, and that fact itself did not bother me. But let’s call this lawyer, the one who called out sick, “Nerah”, what I imagine the feminine form of ‘Nero’ might be in fake, vulgar Latin.
The case I was covering for Nerah was a pretty serious possession of child pornography case, and I walked back into the courthouse hold-over to explain to the client who I was and let him know that I would be covering for Nerah that day- which is when the client told me that he had never seen his lawyer and he had been in jail for over four months. I notified Nerah of it, and she realized that the file had fallen through the cracks, somehow, and she not only had never visited him, she had never even requested evidence. Several days later, as she scrolled through the thumbnails on the computer at the Sheriff’s office, she turned to the deputy in the room with tears streaming down her face and said, “Yes. He’s a piece of shit.”
Between you and I, Beloved Reader, we know that we don’t have to love what our clients do. We don’t have to approve of it, fortunately, and sometimes it is, in fact, disgusting and reprehensible. But we don’t need to uproot all appearances of the belief that our client might be in fact innocent by talking to the opposition with contempt for our client.
During the time we worked together, I saw Nerah’s clients neglected and her cases unworked while she strutted around, bragging to anyone who would listen about her husband’s high-paying job, her expensive house, her $300 haircut, her designer clothing. The only “work” I saw her do was an awkward, horsey flirtation with the prosecutors that she thought was an effective negotiation. The Dance of the Amazons.
Once, waiting in court, she asked a defendant if her purse was Kate Spade. “Uh…I don’t know?” the woman responded, flushed. Chuckling derisively, Nerah said, “Well, if you don’t know, then I’m sure it’s not.” I’m not convinced that most of my clients are able to eat dinner if they want to afford the bus to court the next day.
She would call in sick frequently and then, when she returned, regale everyone who had slogged through covering her mismanaged cases with stories of what she really did over her sick days. Fabulous trips, fun adventures with her family, lazy long weekends. It did not, to say the least, boost morale.
I felt like Nerah was only doing this job because it gave her something to brag about to other people. That she was a lawyer. That she was “helping” poor, needy people. And I think that’s the impression that her clients got, too- that because she thought she was too good for this kind of job, too good for them, they ought to just be grateful whenever she chose to show up.
I complain about her and I feel like I’m unable to relay my outrage sufficiently- the advice I get from other professionals is to keep your eyes in your own lane, but it’s really hard for me because of what we do. If we worked in a different field, where people’s lives and freedom weren’t at stake, I would not care at all what other people in my office did. I would care less than I do if I also weren’t forced to put my hands on their cases, to talk to their clients, and try to un-tangle the wicked mess of doubt, mistrust, and frustration that their clients are suffering under.
But what do we do about it? We are obligated to report conduct that violates rules of professional conduct, but that’s easier said than done, especially if things fall into grey areas or, say, if the lawyer who you are complaining about is your supervisor.
Sometimes, we don’t have a lot of choices. Sometimes we have to leave the wall where we found it, which is hard for us, I think, especially, because our whole careers are built around moving immoveable things. Sometimes we have to close our door. Sometimes we have to do the best we can to dig out someone else’s clients, setting after setting.
The great hope I have for this profession is in the huge wave of lawyers have just come out of law school. Maybe the market will become flooded and better and better attorneys will be the ones who come into these jobs, and the ones who just showed up ten years ago with a bar card and nothing better to do will be swept out.
Until then, all I can do is hope that the theatrics convince the barbarians to lay down their swords. It’s a thin hope, and God knows I hate Nero, but my heart goes out to the citizens who are forced to put their trust in someone so foolish and small.