ESTABLISHING SUPPORTIVE PUBLIC DEFENSE COMMUNITY: WORKING TOGETHER AS A COMMUNITY TO RAISE THE BAR
Sometimes in our lives , We all have pain, We all have sorrow
But if we are wise, We know that there's always tomorrow
Lean on me when you're not strong and I'll be your friend
I'll help you carry on For it won't be long till I'm gonna need
Somebody to lean on
– LEAN ON ME, Bill Withers
By working together we can collectively raise the level of public defense. Not only can we improve the quality of legal work being done by line public defenders, we can also improve the professional and personal lives of all who choose to dedicate their lives to this noble profession. Cooperation, not competition, will lead to the greater good.
One of the developing trends that is providing hope for the future have been the efforts of NAPD and other organizations like Gideon's Promise, through their commitment to foster a client–centered, supportive, cooperative public defense community. A public defense community. The concept seems so foreign from the environment that existed in the past. For years, while indigent defense and other criminal defense organizations have done a good job in providing support and professional networking for indigent defense practitioners, they never succeeded in developing a supportive, cooperative public defense community. It seemed that criminal defense organizations and large institutional providers did not feel like fostering a supportive and cooperative community was a goal to be achieved. Instead, their focus was limited to developing the legal and trial skills of line attorneys. The support and references were there, the sense of community was not. When discussions started to deal with the personal and professional challenges of public defenders, people scoffed at the idea that a community support network should address these non–legal issues. When people started to discuss the importance of these more personal, yet just as important challenges being faced by line public defenders, such pleas were shot down as being too touchy feely and beneath the importance of more experienced lawyers and criminal defense organizations. Why don't we all just hold hands and sing Kum bay ya, were the retorts shot back when the idea of a supportive community were discussed.
This new sense of community can benefit all attorneys within it not only in terms of legal support, but also emotional and personal. Serving as a public defender can be a challenging and lonely profession. We get little support from the outside. No political body is working to provide indigent defense providers the support and resources they truly need. We are all overworked, under–staffed, under–paid, and over–stressed. We are under constant fire from judges, DAs, and the press. Many times the people we represent and their families. This profession can destroy even the strongest and most dedicated public defenders. We live and die with the results of every person we represent. It is gut wrenching to explain to a young person that they will be taken away from their family and be going to prison, or watching a person whose trial you lost get sentenced to spend the rest of their life in jail. We blame ourselves. We ask what we could have done different, even though many times there is nothing that could have changed the outcome. We doubt ourselves, believing that the people we respresent would be better off without us. It is not true, but we believe it all the same.
Please swallow your pride if I have things, You need to borrow
For no one can fill those of your needs, that you won't let show
Just call on me brother when you need a hand, We all need somebody to lean
on I just might have a problem that you'd understand, We all need somebody to lean on
– LEAN ON ME, Bill Withers
We have all been there. Even the strongest and most passionate public defender has gone through times of self–doubt. Sharing our challenging times with other lawyers in the community, both young and experienced, can help them realize they are not alone. Through shared experiences other lawyers within the community, will learn they can overcome and rise above it. But we can only do this if we are committed to working as a cooperative community, supporting all the lawyers within it. To achieve this end, we must be willing to share not only our successes, but also our failures. Too many times lawyers in the public defense community do not share their failures for fear about what others may think. Many times, young public defenders look at experienced lawyers and get intimidated by their success. They get the impression that their accomplishments and poise comes naturally. It causes those less experienced to believe they could not achieve that same level.
Through failure comes wisdom. It is just as important, if not more, to share our failures as our successes. By showing other lawyers that we have gone through challenging times ourselves, and discussing the tools we used to overcome them, we greatly benefit many lawyers who are silently struggling with many of the same doubts and fears. By providing less experienced line attorneys with the emotional support and encouragement, and not just legal skills, letting them know they are not alone, we can provide the confidence and belief in themselves that those less experienced can use to overcome the tough times. Armed with this knowledge and encouragement, they can use this renewed self–confidence to fight on and rise above their struggles. This community support will provide all the lawyers within it not only the legal skills but also the confidence and fortitude to continue to dedicate their talent and passion to fighting for justice for their clients.
This burden to create a public defense community rests not only on indigent defense organizations, but also institutional providers, large and small. Institutional providers have developed a reputation for becoming completely self–sustaining, isolating themselves from “outside” criminal defense organizations and individual criminal practitioners. They would not, at least there was the impression they would not, accept the assistance of or open themselves to support from the outside. Instead, they looked entirely in–house for training, reluctant to allow lawyers from outside their ranks to either participate in training programs as participants or instructors. This sense of we can do it alone not only exists within large indigent defense organizations, but also small to mid–sized offices. Whether these impressions are true or not, this practice should stop. The lawyers in institutional defense providers have the skills, talent, and knowledge that can be incredibly helpful to outside lawyers and organizations. At the same time, they can benefit from the teachings and experiences of attorneys not from inside their walls. By opening their ranks and allowing all indigent defense practitioners and organizations to learns from and share with them, the entire public defense community as a whole will become more vibrant and dynamic.
To be able to develop a supportive, client–centered, and passionate defense community, we all need to shed ourselves of old practices and become open to new ideas and ways of doing things. Sometimes we need to open the window and allow the fresh air in. This is a saying my father once used when discussing his decision to change churches. He explained to the old pastor that the church had become too stuck in tradition and was unwilling to accept ideas and practices that were more in line with modern times. That pastor ignored his words. We should not. Everyone dedicated to the practice of indigent defense will best be served by opening their windows and allowing some fresh air in. It will benefit not only line attorneys, but also leaders within the community, and most importantly the lives of the people we serve.
We can all benefit from new and different ideas and perspectives. Outside organizations; lawyers from different jurisdictions; young, inexperienced, and even non–lawyers, bring their own experiences, challenges they have overcome, tools and strategies they have used to succeed. The differing perspectives and tools to succeed can effectively be applied to the work we all do. This open concept should apply not only to the way institutional providers operate with respect to outside organizations, but also how offices work when dealing within their own ranks. Younger lawyers bring fresh new perspectives. New ways of teaching. New ideas. New technologies. Their participation in training and development should be encouraged, not suppressed.
When we break down the walls that separate us, we will be able to communicate more feely and provide the mutual support and encouragement that will benefit both the lawyers within this community and clients we serve. It is not easy to accept change. Trying new things, accepting and embodying new ideas, is scary. We become comfortable in the ways we have done things. There is a belief in the minds of many experienced lawyers that they know what works best. They believe that success rests in doing things the way they have always operated. They believe that accepting new ideas and embodying new perspectives, will make them less effective. This is not true. By accepting new client–centered ideals and more open and mutually supportive practices both within our individual offices and throughout the public defense community as a whole, we will all benefit. Opening ourselves up to new ideas and new perspectives does not mean dismantling everything we have done. It only requires a willingness and an open–mindedness to listen to new ideas. To progress we must all be willing to admit that maybe, ……. just maybe, ….. we can improve upon the way we operate. Because we can.
I know from personal experience that being willing to put aside my old ideas, and instead being more dedicated to doing my job in a client–centered way, taught by Jon Rapping and the amazing people in the Gideon's Promise family, has made be a better, more effective lawyer. It has benefitted both me as well as the people I serve. My pride may have been bruised realizing I could do things better. But when it comes down to it, my pride pales in comparison to the lives and liberty of the people I represent.
We all have a common goal. We should be united in working towards and fighting for the accomplishment of that goal. Together we can be far more powerful and have more influence than if we continue to operate alone. We are far stronger when we march together locked arm–in–arm as a cohesive group and not thousands of separate parts. It will benefit not only the attorneys who share in this community, but also the lives and liberty of the people we represent.