I recently read the NYT May 12th article, “Lawyers with Lowest Pay Report More Happiness” and like many public defenders, wasn’t surprised by the finding that public defenders are among the most satisfied of all law practitioners.
I thought of places like the Salt Lake Legal Defenders Association in Utah, Orleans Public Defenders in Louisiana, Pierce County Office of Assigned Counsel in Washington, the Louisville Metro Public Defender’s office in Kentucky, and Orange County Public Defenders in California, which are just a few examples of public defender offices that can draw from exceptionally competitive applicant pools and who enjoy the distinction of being among – if not the – most esteemed law offices in their area. I met a defender in Salt Lake City who had waited almost three years to get back to LDA and she said, “What a relief to be back! I will never make the mistake of leaving again!” Many offices have similarly devoted staff, contractors or assigned counsel. It is wonderful to watch these advocates at work – to see their commitment to their clients, the camaraderie with their colleagues, and the respect paid to them by the rest of the system (New Orleans, a work in progress perhaps…).
The article created what (I hope) are two blog-worthy thoughts. The first relates to what Lurene Kelley said in the NAPD Annual Report a few months ago: “When we hear the message that public defenders are overwhelmed and under-resourced, it conjures up that image seen so often in popular culture – the public defender as rumpled and defeated – an individual to be pitied. But the truth is far from that!”
The truth is that in public defender offices across the country it is possible to watch defenders making a difference for their clients, and the positive ripple effect of their advocacy throughout the client community. Observation and practice have both taught me that the more client-centered the practice, the more satisfying it becomes. Painful also, because becoming invested in your client’s circumstance, struggles and potential brings you closer to sharing this experience. But unquestionably in enriches the relationship and changes a “crushing workload” into something else entirely. We, as a public defender community, need to promote public defenders as tireless, impassioned, compassionate and brilliant advocates for justice! There’s heartbreak in our work, but hilarity and awe-inspiring victory too. Most importantly, we don’t want pity – we love our jobs!
Why are you a public defender? To be overworked and underpaid and burdened with all your client’s traumas? No! The public defenders I know are public defenders because they love their clients, they cherish the constitution, they relish being the underdog, they live for justice, they are challenged emotionally, creatively, and intellectually to the limit and beyond, and they know that they make a difference. Rumpled and defeated? That’s absurd, but the image persists.
With a few exceptions, the public defender needs a PR makeover, and it can't happen too soon. I have become a devotee to the concept of identity branding, which I know raises some level of discomfort for lots of people. But here’s the thing: public defenders are already branded. By someone else. In many cases, a prosecutor, or unfavorable media. We aren’t creating something contrived or arbitrary when we brand ourselves, we are asserting our ability to define ourselves on our own terms. Helen Keller said, "When one comes to think of it, there are no such things as divine, immutable, or inalienable rights. Rights are things we get when we are strong enough to make good our claim on them."
“Identity brands” work just the same way. We need to brand our happiness as public defenders, the thrill of our work, the challenges and the overcoming of them. This is my first thought on the NYT article.
The work of “branding”, just like anything, can be done well or poorly. Branding is supported by the company culture, and it is the culture that gives the brand its credibility. Did anyone else read the extensive coverage of Starbucks recent failed ‘Race Together’ Campaign? LinkedIn did a brief recap, succinctly faulting “brand misalignment”, “authenticity deficit” and “poor reaction.” Nice try Starbucks, but your culture simply didn’t support this branding effort, and so it didn’t work, and created significant backlash. It has to be real to have power. But by the same token, once it is real, its power is secure.
The happy (if outraged – the two are not incompatible), effective, and committed public defender “brand” – when supported by an authentic, deep-seated culture – needs to be marketed to the public, but it can also be marketed to partners. It’s nice to earn people’s general respect for what you do, and it’s really nice when, because you’ve earned their respect, they want to give you stuff. Like their time. This is my second takeaway from the NYT article.
The sale-ability of public defender happiness is an opportunity to partner with private law firms, particularly those who do primarily a civil practice, to better serve your clients as a public defender. Take, for example, the NeunerPate law firm in Lafayette, LA, a defense-based practice in the heart of the Oil Center. Their mission considers their commitment to clients and their role in the community, and is broad enough to squarely include their significant dedication to pro bono work. Year after year, associate attorneys and the NeunerPate firm earn local, regional and national recognition for the thousands of hours of pro bono service they dedicate to poor defendants. Most recently, their pro bono service was recognized by the Louisiana State Bar Association, the American Inns of Court and NeunerPate associate Jeff Coreil was named the LSU Law Center’s 2015 Distinguished Achievement Honoree. NeunerPate donates more than 600 hours of annual pro bono service to poor people in their community. These clients get the same quality of representation, communication and seriousness as any one of NeunerPate’s private clients. And isn’t that exactly what equal justice is all about?
It is an awesome collaboration to recruit well-established private lawyers in gleaming offices to the service of indigent clients. When you consider that these folks may stand closer to political power than you do as a public defender, it provides a chance to bring favorable political will to the entire defense system. The opportunity to provide your clients with top-notch representation for civil or other related legal needs and to cultivate new allies to support the critical work public defenders do – it’s a win-win for everyone involved. Win-wins perpetuate happiness.
Personal/professional happiness is not a substitute for unreasonable workloads or insufficient pay – two real problems that threaten criminal justice systems in almost every jurisdiction in the country. But public defender happiness it is an asset to the justice movement.
Celebrate your work – or your fellow public defenders’ work – by affirming all the benefits of this righteous cause. You can redefine the way that people think about what you do, and build new relationships that help your clients, help your office and help all those other lawyers who don’t have the pleasure and the privilege of representing poor people accused of crime, which is some of the most satisfying work there is to be had anywhere.