Oh, the Things You Will Learn
I was a relatively young chief defender, having been appointed Public Advocate by the Kentucky Governor several years before. I went from running a small trial office in Richmond, Kentucky, to being the chief defender over the statewide public defender system. I recall in my first week getting a call from the head of the Department of Juvenile Justice demanding to know what I was going to do about a particular contentious issue. That same week, the chief of a state agency demanded that we stop a lawsuit against her agency. And did I mention that the head of the Cabinet DPA was in wanted a particular one of my most zealous attorneys to be reined in if not fired? All the while I was at Faubush, DPA’s trial practice institute, believing that perhaps part of my job as Public Advocate just might involve teaching young lawyers, knowing about the law and such.
Over the next twelve years as Public Advocate, my mind went back to that first week and the complete shock I was in when I realized that my work life would never be the same. I went to Frankfort (the central office of DPA) believing that I would be able to influence the law that was being considered at our General Assembly, that I would be able to effect significant policy decisions, that I would be allowed to sit at the table when criminal justice funding was being divvied up to ensure that indigent defense received its share. Instead, I spent all of my time dealing with external calls for me to control my employees as they were demanding justice for their clients, or trying to figure out how we were going to represent everyone on death row after the Justice Cabinet ended our Bryne Grant funding our Capital Post-Conviction Branch, or how we were supposed to represent 100,000 clients a year getting only 1/3rd of the budget of the prosecution function. That’s not to mention trying to figure out how one of my employees had been hired before my time without anyone realizing he had been found not guilty by reason of insanity in another state, or what color our offices should be painted that would satisfy the most people, or why I kept the temperature of our building so cold all the time, or why I was unwilling to hire a disgraced former prosecutor who had sexually harassed a defendant. Where do you learn to deal with these things? I certainly did not have any preparation in college or law school to cope with the multifarious challenges of defender leadership, and I felt lost and alone.
Finally, in the late 90’s, the Vera Institute offered a 3-4 day training to be held in the northeast for people just like me. My session was at Airlie in Virginia. I went and met a whole bunch of chief defenders who were just like me. They were struggling with many of the same issues. And what a relief that was! We learned over those three days of all of the challenges public defense chiefs face. And we learned how to look at those problems, how to understand where power was in our communities and how to effect that power. We learned about how to decide what had public value and how to add public value to the defense function. We learned how to communicate, to put together a pitch that would persuade various decision makers. Oh, the things we learned! I left Airlie a much better leader than when I arrived. And many of the leaders I met at Vera are now in leadership positions in NAPD.
Many of you are in the same position I was in. That’s why NAPD is sponsoring its first Executive Leadership Institute at Valparaiso Law School. Valpo is being run by Andrea Lyon, a magnificent death penalty lawyer, blogger for the Huffington Post, teacher at NCDC, and now the new Dean there. They offered NAPD a home, and we’re seeing how that works on June 29-July 1. We have 50 places for executive defenders—leaders of organizations or divisions, including nonlawyers. At the time I am writing this, we have about 15 places left. We have a terrific faculty in place. Our curriculum is centered on five vital areas defender leaders need to master, followed by lengthy small groups where the real learning will take place.
If you feel overwhelmed by the demands of your new position, come to Valpo. If you cannot see the forest for the trees, the solutions out of the problems, come to Valpo. If you have a leadership challenge that is intractable and unsolvable, come to Valpo. Oh, the things you will learn.