What you leave behind is not what is engraved in stone monuments, but what is woven into the lives of others.– Pericles
There are numerous watershed moments in every person’s career. Times when you could have gone in one direction over another, with each path leading to a completely different destination. Many times our decisions are influenced by significant events or people who’ve touched our lives in one way or another. Sometimes when people have a positive effect on us, we do not always take the time to say thanks; to let them know how important they were to our lives.
I was in a reflective mood recently regarding the path on which I am currently travelling as a public defense lawyer. There have been a number of people who helped guide me to that path. I have thanked many for their contribution. Unfortunately, I never thanked one person who was very influential because I didn’t realize the affect he had on one of the most life–changing career decisions I’ve made to date, until after it was too late. Our interaction was very brief, but the impact he had on my career has been far greater. He helped lead me to a far different path than the one on which I would have travelled were it not for him. The drastic change in course likely never would have occurred were it not for his words. Sadly, it is too late for me to let him know how important he was to me and how I will always remember how he helped me find my way. He is no longer with us; taken from this earth far too early. An opportunity missed. A chance forever lost.
Where was I? It was 2010. I had been a public defender for more than ten years, but had gotten to a point where I truly believed it was time for me to follow a different path. If you asked me at the time, I would have said it was a matter “when” not “if” I would turn the page on this chapter of my career, moving on to a new adventure. I believed there was no more growth needed or anything new for me to accomplish. I was done. I soon learned how wrong I was.
In May of that year, I spent a weekend in Atlanta, learning about the New Attorney Training Program run by the Southern Public Defender Training Center (SPDTC)—since renamed to Gideon’s Promise. At the time I knew nothing about the program, the organization, or its dynamic and inspirational leader, Jonathan Rapping. On Saturday morning when the instructional program began, I along with approximately 40 others drifted into a conference room on the second floor of the Marriott Downtown. I neither recognized nor knew anyone in the room. As a relatively shy person, especially in these types of unfamiliar settings, I did not interact with anyone; instead, quickly finding an open seat next to a young man who introduced himself as Mike. Little did I know at the time how much this chance meeting would dramatically change the course of my career.
As my wife reminds me, everything happens for a reason; there are no coincidences. I can’t imagine where I’d be today had my boss, Tim Donaher, not sent me to Atlanta. What if the seat next to Mike had been filled? What if I had chosen to sit in a different chair? I understand now that fate chose that seat for me. It meant for me to sit next to Mike, because he was exactly who I needed to meet at that point in my life. [Note to self: I need to listen to my wife more and open my mind to the wonder life has to offer.]
For the next two days, we learned about the two week trainer; the goals to be accomplished by each session; and the overall objectives of the program. It was an intense presentation with a lot to absorb. During breaks, the attendees interacted with many conversations involving former colleagues catching up about what had occurred since last they saw one another. Not knowing anyone, I took in everything going on around. Okay, I eavesdropped on Mike’s conversations, during which I learned about his career. He was once a public defender with a top rated office—one which I revere, holding it and all its lawyers in the highest of esteem. I was immediately impressed. He had since moved on to be a top level white collar defense lawyer with a major law firm. Now, I was in awe. He had risen to the mountain top in both his public defender career and as a private defense lawyer. His story gave me hope. He had made the move that I, at the time, wanted for myself. We needed to talk.
Halfway through the first day, I apologized for listening in on his conversations, telling Mike how impressed I was by his career, explaining that I’d like to get his advice on how to make a similar move. We discussed where I was and what I hoped to do in the future. We talked about his move to the private sector and his previous work as a public defender. Mike was wonderful; very engaging; full of ideas and advice. He was gracious and not the least bit judgmental. Even though the focus of our conversation had been to discuss his move to and work as a private lawyer, he spent as much if not more talking about how much he enjoyed his life as a public defender, saying he missed those days and the people with whom he served. He lit up when discussing the pride and joy he got from being a public defender, explaining that was why he stayed involved with Gideon’s Promise, training and inspiring new lawyers on the cusp of their careers.
The Atlanta program did a wonderful job not only educating us on the aspects of the two week trainer in Birmingham, but also the Gideon’s Promise movement, which is fundamentally shifting the ground on which public defense reform, as well as the development, training, and inspiration of new public defense lawyers is being built. I travelled to Atlanta thinking I was only going to learn about a trial skills program. I was wrong. Never did I think I would learn so much about the importance of public defender pride and client centered representation both in our own practices as well as the training we give to our lawyers. Little did I imagine how much I would gain, how much my perspective would change in such a short period of time. I left Atlanta with a new found sense of Public Defender pride and energy to be more focused on being client centered in my representation.
Pride in our work as public defense lawyers was not something about which I had seen much support previously in my career. I always remember a T-shirt which states; “Don’t tell my Mom I am a Public Defender, she’s finally proud of me, ………. She thinks I am a piano player in a whorehouse”. The first time I saw that saying, I thought it was funny. Now I understand how sad it is. That joke characterizes how many think about our work, even those who are public defense lawyers. More’s the pity. By 2010, it had worked its way into my mindset, affecting the way I regarded our work. I felt that if I truly wanted to make a difference I’d need to make the move to the private sector. I was wrong (I am beginning to see a trend here). Mike and Gideon’s Promise helped show me that it was not true and not how we should allow ourselves or others to talk about our work. My time in Atlanta was inspiring, moving me in a way that nothing and no one else had ever done before. Mike helped me to open my mind, guiding me to a new way of thinking about our work; what I truly wanted; what I could accomplish; and how much I’d miss everything that working in public defense has to offer. I left Atlanta motivated to think carefully about whether the path I thought was so certain, was the best one for me to follow.
Stage Right (August 2010; Birmingham, Alabama). After spending five days participating in both the Leadership Conference and New Attorney Training Program, I saw the amazing work Gideon’s Promise is doing to change the culture of public defense. Gideon’s Promise is at the forefront of training lawyers to be client centered. It offers support and encouragement to attorneys to put what they learn into their practice long after they return to their respective offices, in a way like no other program I have ever experienced. Gideon’s Promise inspires all public defense lawyers both new and experienced, filling them with a true sense of pride for their chosen career path; showing that they are heroes for their sacrifice and commitment to fighting for the people they represent. Gideon’s Promise is leading a movement; developing a future generation of client centered public defense lawyers and leaders for reform. I left Birmingham knowing I wanted to be a fully engaged and vested foot soldier in that movement. I was forever changed, having been shown a new, greater path to follow.
For the first time in my career I truly understood the importance of serving as a client centered lawyer and in inspiring others to follow the same path. I was filled with a full and lasting feeling of public defender pride. Driven to always push harder for the life and liberty of the people I serve, willing to sacrifice even more of myself on their behalf. I came to understand the importance of our role as Defenders of the Constitution. How important it is for us to teach Judges and prosecutors alike, that protecting the rights and liberty of our clients, not the safety of the police or society, are why that sacred document was written. I was dedicated to be a fully participating member of the public defense reform movement; motivated to make fighting for its goals the path I would follow for the remainder of my career. When 2010 opened, I had lost my way. In August of that same year, I was headed in a completely different direction, never to look back. Where only months earlier I was finished as a public defense lawyer, now there was nowhere that I would rather be; nothing I would rather do; no one for whom I would rather fight than those who choose this path and for whom we fight.
I never could have gotten here without the help and guidance of Mike, Rap, and all the other amazing people of the Gideon’s Promise family. I am forever in their debt. As a result, I strive to pay forward what I have been given, instilling others with the feeling of pride and fulfillment that comes with the work we do. To remind public defense lawyers both new and experienced, that our work is the most noble and honorable path a lawyer can take. It is not just a starting point, but rather the path to follow for the remainder of their careers. While it is one that will not be without its obstacles; times when we struggle, it is a path on which you can remain, persevere, succeed, and accomplish great things for our clients. To those who choose this path, I promise my help and support when they struggle, knowing that in this movement I will get just as much if not more in return.
I did not understand the importance of Mike’s words when he shared them with me. How important his feelings and experiences were in helping me to understand the importance and fulfillment you can get by committing yourself to our work and who we serve. It was only after I learned of Mike’s passing that I remembered his words and their importance to the drastic change in my career path. I wish I had realized it sooner. I am deeply saddened because I never got the opportunity to thank him personally. This piece is my way of saying thanks. My effort to pay tribute to a top notch lawyer and a great man, whose positive effect continues to this very day. I have tried my best to take up the mantle that Mike helped pass to me. To inspire others to follow and stay the course he helped me find. While Mike’s feet no longer touch this earth, his footprints continue far into the horizon with the steps of each lawyer who chooses to follow the same path. I know from the feeling I get when I follow in those footprints, how amazing this journey can be. Hopefully those I may inspire will pay it forward, inspiring even more to take this same journey. The more who join, the more powerful and dynamic this movement will become. I strongly encourage you to join the movement. Follow the path. Lead in both your work and your words. Leave those footprints that will help all who follow to a new age of client centered, committed, and compassionate public defense representation.
To Michael Starr, peace. Thank you for helping to show me the way.