Since his passing on March 21, 2017, much has been said and heard of the great Dennis Murphy, the former Director of Training at The Legal Aid Society in New York.  Much more can be said, will be said and will continue to resonate as his legacy carries on and the indigent defense community continues to benefit from his teachings, his ideas and his deep love for our clients.  Dennis’ creative thinking was infectious.  He had a keen ability to extract people’s strengths, passion and talents.  He encouraged people not only to think about the possibilities but to do more than they thought possible.  He could be counted on to give a gentle nudge or not so gentle reminder that what they hoped to achieve was a worthy goal, despite any setbacks, because they mattered, ideas mattered, and because most of all, our clients mattered.  Centered always in his teachings, talks and goal setting was:  Who matters most?  Who do we work for?  OUR CLIENTS.  Because after all who would we public defenders be without them? 

One day during my training, Dennis had former clients come talk to our new class of public defenders before officially going into the trenches.  We learned from, asked questions of, and got advice from those who matter most.  What we learned that day was invaluable.  What it meant to each of us, past, present and future is impossible to measure.  My officemate took vigorous notes and then at the office hung those notes above her desk as a reminder of the kind of lawyer clients want and need.  Years into her practice she still has those notes.       
They read:

  • Be forceful.
  • Investigate.
  • Be a bulldog like the prosecutor.
  • Be assertive.
  • Empower your client & have them participate in their own defense.
  • Explain what’s going on.  Explain the resources & how to access them.
  • Don’t underestimate your client’s intelligence.
  • Build rapport immediately.
  • Take your client seriously.  They can be helpful to the case.
  • Show your client their paper work.
  • Be straight forward, direct & honest with your client.
  • If you tell your client what to expect they are empowered with knowledge.
  • If their anxiety is high eventually they may lash out at you.
  • Give your clients CHOICE. And respect their CHOICES.

In a class made up mostly of women, Dennis took the time to empower us, creating the space for us to address concerns directly related to what it meant to do this work as a woman.  He invited other young women public defenders to come and talk to us to provide their insight.  He reminded each of us to always be who we were because that was exactly what was needed.  He reminded our entire class, as I imagine he did classes before, to be good people and to love our clients always, no matter what.       

But Dennis did not just tell us to love our clients, he led by example, he graciously passed the mic to our clients and others with different lessons to offer, because what our clients had to teach us was just as important as what he could teach us.  Thank you for always honoring our clients and being a living experience of what it means to love our clients.  At the end of the day, to be a good public defender, you must first be a good person, and you were a great person.  
R.I.P. – Dennis Murphy you are already deeply missed!

Contributions in memory of Dennis Murphy can be made to the Southern Center for Human Rights at
|STAR|Special thanks to Rebeka Penberg for sharing her note.