Finding Happiness in Our Work
Recently I have seen a number of conversations focusing on whether we can hold up under the stress and pressure that comes with our work as criminal defense lawyers. Questions like: “Can you keep a sunny outlook when you are asked to win when the cards are always stacked against you?” My answer is “Yes”, you can find great joy and satisfaction in our chosen profession. “How?” you ask As Curly (Jack Palance’s character in City Slickers) advised, the secret to happiness comes in finding that “one thing”. Unlike Curly, I will share that what one thing is – eventually. To be able to sustain yourself in this work it is important to answer this question in your own mind and heart.
Our work is not easy. If you wanted easy you should have been a prosecutor. But as Brett Willis, a superstar public defender from Georgia, once said; “It’s the hard that makes it so great”. In many cases we defend, the facts, the law, the witnesses, and all the courtroom players are against us. We do not get a lot of support, even from some on our side of the aisle. In today’s pro-prosecution society, it’s very easy for the government (seen as wearing the “white hats”) to receive large amounts of support while defense lawyers are seen as either money hungry, sleazy, or incompetent. We fight against the presumption of guilt; against judges who give the prosecution everything they want (even when they don’t ask); and against the police, who willingly lie even under oath, with impunity. Making the pressure even greater is the reality that the life and freedom of each person we defend rests in our hands. How you choose to address this reality defines you.
Some will say being a criminal defense lawyer does not define them. That is not how I see myself. I am a public defense lawyer; a true believer and damn proud of it. Being a public defense lawyer defines who I am as a person and a professional. It was not always that way for me, but that has changed. Better said: “I have changed”. Now, there is nothing I would rather do; there is no one I’d rather be; there is nothing for which I would rather fight, than the life and freedom of an indigent person charged with a crime. What changed you ask? The answer is I found that “one thing” – the importance of providing client centered representation to every person for whose life I fight. Finding it has enabled me to find true joy and purpose in my work. Working to truly serve as a client centered lawyer has become a primary foundation of the way I do my job. It defines how I work, how I interact with the people I represent and their families, what I do in the courtroom, and the way I train other lawyers.
We must not only change how we practice ourselves, but also take the lead in the effort to change the culture of criminal defense. So how do we get there you ask? One way is through training and outreach in what it means to be truly client centered. Many of the lawyers who subscribe to the non–client centered approach have never received any training in the area. Think about the training you received when you started your career. How much focused on the importance of or the skills involved in serving as a client centered lawyer? I suspect the total amount is very small. As leaders in this movement, you should not hesitate to discuss the importance of client centered representation with other lawyers, both public and private, especially as they start their careers, while not neglecting more experienced lawyers. Some believe the latter are lost; that they can’t be reached because you can’t teach an old dog new tricks. While this statement is true for many it is not for all. There are a number of experienced lawyers who have it in them; they just need the encouragement to rediscover the client centered lawyer inside and the support to let it become a part of their practice.
I know whereof I speak. I am one of those old dogs, but I learned a new trick. After more than ten years of serving as an assistant public defender I had lost my way, but Jon Rapping and the amazing people of Gideon’s Promise helped guide me onto the client centered path. As public defense leaders we should work to give lawyers the understanding, training, and support necessary to understand what it means and why it is so essential to follow the client centered path. Client centered representation should be both a stand–alone presentation as well part of all other skills presentations. It should be a part both of new lawyer training programs as well as presentations geared towards more experienced lawyers. Client centered representation should be the primary fulcrum around which we center everything we do. It should be the main component of the culture we develop in the public defense community – institutional defender offices, as well as the larger defense bar. It is essential for those of us who recognize these deficiencies to stand up and lead the change movement. Change the way we perform our own jobs. Change the way we train our lawyers. Change the culture in which we work, supporting and encouraging others to join us in this movement. Change is never a bad thing. Improvement is the result of the willingness and ability to change; perfection is the result of constant change.
This transformation may not be smooth for all. It hasn’t been for me. It requires you to unlearn bad habits developed as a result of a lack of training in how to practice in a client centered way. You may also encounter resistance and a lack of support in transforming your work to one defined by client centered representation and trying to change the culture in which you practice. There are vocal opponents, both private and public, to the concept of being truly client centered. There are those who believe you cannot become too invested in the person you represent or the outcome of their case, saying you should not consider the effect it will have on their life or freedom. This mindset is based upon the idea of self–preservation of the lawyer, with little regard for the life or interests of the person she is defending. These are the lawyers who constantly refer to “my client” instead of referring to the person they represent by name. They are also the ones who get upset because “their client” is making a “stupid” decision by turning down a “generous” offer by the “People”. Unfortunately, not only is this perspective held by a number of criminal defense lawyers, it is also passed down to new lawyers as they enter the profession. Trying to overcome this mindset and change the culture is not an easy task, but it can be done. Do not get discouraged by the resistance. A greater number of people are joining the movement every day. Culture change will not come quickly, it never does. But, it will not come at all unless we make it an essential focus of our mission.
Not only will being client centered make you a better defense lawyer, it will also greatly increase the satisfaction you get from your work, even when you are not successful. The unforgiving truth is that more than 99 percent of the people we represent are found guilty, either by plea or after trial. This job can be very frustrating and demoralizing if your definition of success only includes when your trial ends in a not guilty verdict, when charges are dismissed, or evidence suppressed. That is one reason why those who do not practice client centered representation find so much frustration with the work. The client centered lawyer is able to recognize and find joy in the small victories we have every day, by focusing on the individual; trying to get to know that person; and develop an understanding of what he or she wants. They work with clients in developing their defense giving each human being they represent a feeling of importance and personal involvement in his or her case. Following the client centered path will enable the lawyer and the person she represents to develop a strong connection. Clients end up understanding that the client centered lawyer will be there to fight for them, because they feel you care about them as a people, not just the outcome of their case. The client centered lawyer does not only see success in times of victory, but every time you have a positive impact on a person’s life.
Developing a sense of caring for the person you represent and the effect the case has on him or her will enable you to be more passionate in your work. Lawyers who oppose client centered representation believe that by focusing on the case, not the person, the lawyer is better able to be impartial and unemotional in his work. I absolutely and wholeheartedly disagree with this mindset. Emotion and compassion for the person you represent is never a bad thing when presenting the story of your client. Jurors and judges are more likely to agree with your position when you show that you are invested in the result on behalf of the person you represent, appealing to their human side, as opposed to focusing simply on legal rules and logic. Study after study has shown that jurors make their decisions based in large part on emotion and not a cold, logical application of the law. They try to do what is “right” and apply the law in a way to make that occur.
I have seen it myself in a trial in which the facts and the law were completely against a woman I was representing. We built our defense around the human and emotional side if her story, focusing on the why, not the what. We made those emotional pleas fit within the structure of a legal defense. After five hours of deliberation, the jury sent out a note which asked: “Do we have to apply the law the way it is written or can we apply it the way we think it should?” When the jury returned two hours later with a guilty verdict, five out of the twelve were crying. Seven openly expressed their anger at the District Attorney and the Judge for making them find her guilty. We were able to reach those jurors’ hearts not just their minds by presenting her story, not just a legal defense. I was only able to present that story by getting to know her, not only the facts of the case. Some would say we were not “successful” because she was convicted. I disagree. First, twelve people walked out of that courtroom with a better understanding of the injustice that exists in the criminal courts and the way the District Attorney’s office proceeds with prosecutions. Second, the judge ultimately placed her on probation, meaning that she did not spend a single day behind bars, when every pre-trial offer included at least six months in jail. Third, the felony conviction was ultimately overturned on appeal and she eventually plea to a misdemeanor. Fourth, we successfully defeated both the District Attorney and the Department of Health in their effort to take away her professional license. Fifth, the woman I represented saw someone truly care about her and tell her story. Someone willing to fight for her; never giving up even though everything about the case seemed against her. It took almost five years, but we were able to find true justice for her.
When you can connect with the person you represent, you develop the ability to tell his or her story. One of the main focuses of every defense lawyer should be to humanize each and every person he or she represents, which enables the factfinder to find commonality with the life you are trying to save. A compelling, personal story allows those deciding your client’s fate (whether judge or jury) to identify with him or her as a human being, not just a criminal defendant. The lawyer can never begin to scratch the surface of what one needs to know in order to tell the client’s story, if the focus is centered solely on the case, not the person being represented. You must start this process by treating the person you represent with respect, the lack of which is one of the primary reasons many clients don’t trust their lawyers. Lawyers who seem only focused on telling the client about the process and the offer, not listening to that person, will never even learn the most basic information necessary to tell his or her story or develop their defense. The people you represent will be more willing to be honest and open with you if they feel they are being heard; that their lawyer is willing to work with them, instead of talking at them. I once read about a highly respected, high profile defense lawyer who told a large group of law school students that the first meeting with clients is a waste of time, because all they do is try to convince you they didn’t commit the crime. This mindset is one against which we must fight to change the culture of criminal defense to one premised on client centered representation.
Serving as a client centered lawyer will enable you to find more happiness and satisfaction in our work. It will make you work harder and strive to always improve your craft. The satisfaction you get from having a positive impact on someone’s life, will give you far more fulfillment than monetary compensation, prestige, or popularity. This is not to say client centered lawyers never get frustrated. They do. But when they do, it is borne out of the injustices that exist in the system rather than the people they represent. Your unrelenting desire to protect each person from those injustices will drive you further and harder than you ever knew possible. Client centered lawyers bleed with those injustices and the way they devastate the lives and families of those we fight to save. You can’t stop them all, but you can fight like hell to prevent them from occurring, which will give both you and the people you represent a sense of inner peace knowing you gave everything in the fight for their life. They will not be happy, but there will be a better sense of acceptance for the outcome, because you involved them in the process and they saw that you never stopped fighting until the fight was done. While the result will still be disappointing, there will be a solace knowing that there was nothing else that could have been done and that you gave it everything you had. Many times the biggest thanks I get are from clients and families in trials that we lost. Cases where the evidence seemed so overwhelming and the offer so bad, that the person I represented felt satisfied seeing how hard I fought and how much effort I put into telling hisr story. If you follow this path, the traditional victories will be even sweeter, knowing you gave completely of yourself, saving the life and freedom of another human being.
Yes Virginia, you can be happy as a criminal defense lawyer. We have the opportunity to touch, have a positive impact upon, and to save lives. These opportunities present themselves every day. By serving as a client centered lawyer you can have an incredibly positive impact on the lives of the people you represent, even when you don’t win. It can be done but not if your primary focus is on the case and not the person. Following the client centered path in our work and commitment to the people we serve, can lead to true happiness. The next step is up to you.