Public Defenders Can Lead the Client-Centered Movement
I went into the office one bright, sunny Sunday morning in December—a scene every public defense lawyer has played out hundreds of times. Going in over the weekend to catch up on work because of overwhelming caseloads, exacerbated by the countless hours spent in court and jail visiting clients during the week.
The first thing I noticed when I settled in at my desk was the blinking voicemail light, which I found somewhat surprising because I had cleared it at around 5 pm the evening prior. I was even more surprised to learn there were 20 messages on my phone. As I listened to each message, it soon became clear all 20 were from the same person—starting at 10 pm; continuing through to 1 am Sunday morning. While most contained information conveyed on prior occasions, one was new—its content and impact on me have remained in my mind ever since. In that message, the young man who I had been representing for about eight months finished by saying: “You are the most important person in my life right now”. This message stuck with me because it is one I never would have received before I became a dedicated follower of the client–centered path. This young man’s words; what they mean; and their significance in terms of our profession, serve as a daily reminder of why it is so vitally important to change the culture of criminal defense, to one that truly embraces client–centered representation. While it is important path for all involved in this fight to follow, this movement that can be led by public defense lawyers. Hopefully, we can lead others through our words and our actions that this path is the one that all should follow.
You know about my transformation from being a passionate trial lawyer to one completely committed to client–centered representation. This change was not easy, in part because it required me to truly look at myself; the way I interacted with my clients; and how I practiced outside the courtroom. I had to be willing to admit that I was flawed; to acknowledge those ways in which I was failing myself, my clients, and their families. I had to be open to the idea that I could improve. This challenge is one I made for myself. It is a challenge I make to all those committed to this work—to look at themselves and find those ways they too can improve. No one of us is perfect. All can benefit by finding the inner strength to look for ways in which to improve. Those who say they don’t have any, are not truly looking. Unless we are all willing to be honest with ourselves and admit our imperfections, we will never be able to improve in our ability to being truly and completely client–centered. By no means am I saying we have it all wrong or even mostly wrong. Instead, that while we are well along the way, there remain critical areas where we can afford to improve. Some will say that being 80|PERCENT| of the way there is enough. That public defense lawyers deserve some slack because of the sacrifices we make and our overwhelming caseloads. I say that our choice to serve a public defense lawyers places an even greater obligation on us to strive to achieve 100|PERCENT|. The people whose lives have been placed in our hands deserve that we make that effort to achieve 100|PERCENT|; nothing less.
Even though I have been transformed, I am not perfect. I fail every day, as we all do. We are human after all. But the struggle is in being strong enough to admit our imperfections and always strive to find ways to improve. Thanks to the guidance of Gideon’s Promise, I was able to find and remain on the path to client–centered representation. The benefit that will flow from this effort, is not limited to improving the lives of the people we serve. The victories that can be achieved will be more lasting and fulfilling than the temporary pain we experience in admitting where we have failed. We will be able to develop more trusting and productive relationships with our clients. The lives of our clients’ families will be better. Further, the perception of public defense lawyers in the communities we serve as well as society as a whole, will be far improved.
Public defense lawyers can lead this movement because, many times we represent people on the fringes of society. People many see and treat as outcasts; as less than human. We must show the human side of all those we serve. To humanize each and every client to the court, the prosecution, the public, and the jury who will decide their fate. The young man who left the message is a person who is not the easiest to represent. Mentally ill, chemically addicted, and in denial about both. “High maintenance” or “difficult” were phrases many use to describe him. I started to represent him after he had been arrested on a series of violent and nonviolent felonies. After about five months of work, we were able to get all the violent and a few of the nonviolent felonies dismissed, leaving him charged with only a single, indicted nonviolent felony. At that point, I could easily have transferred the remaining charge to another lawyer, something I would quickly have done before my professional transformation. It would have been easy to turn away from his case justifying it on the fact that I had many more clients charged with far more serious crimes. Using that criteria would be about me and not the human life placed in my care. I knew that if I wanted to walk the walk of client centered representation, I needed to stay by his side. I owed it to him to continue to stand with and fight for him.
A necessary step in serving as a truly client–centered lawyer is to remain committed to developing a genuine, trusting, and open working relationship with every person you represent. Start by listening, instead of informing them about the charges and the procedural posture of their case. In spite of the fact that his defense was not one that was likely to succeed, I did not try to bully him into taking an offer. He knew I would fight for him. Over the course of my representation we spoke often. We developed a trusting, working relationship. The type of client centered relationship I never would have sought nor understood how to achieve before my transformation. I took the time to listen to the young man I was representing every time he called—and that was a lot—even if it meant repeating the same information over and over again. When I saw his number on my caller ID, I answered the phone. Whenever he called, I allowed him to talk even when what he had to say had little to do with his case or his defense. Instead of only discussing his case, I listened to him discuss his life, his problematic relationship with the complainant—to whom he kept returning in spite of the repeated calls to have him arrested—what he wanted to see happen in his case as well as where he wanted to take his life in the future. Through opening up instead of limiting the lines of communication, our relationship became less defined by one of lawyer/ client and more defined by mutual respect and trust. I believe it was that relationship that allowed him to feel as though he could trust on me, something he never previously felt in his life.
Trust is something you earn, it is not freely given, especially when you are appointed to serve as someone’s public defense lawyer. They haven’t chosen you. Many feel they are stuck with their lawyer. This young man gave me his trust, because I had earned it. In return, I owed it to him and the trust he placed in me, to stay by his side and his fight to the bitter end. Instead of passing him off to someone else who handled less serious matters or who needed the trial experience, I remained with him in his fight for freedom. This effort was not lost on him, and his words showed he was happy I remained by his side. That trust would not have been possible if I was focused on the case and my own interests, as opposed to his life and liberty. This young man’s words and the trust he placed in me, serves as a daily reminder of why we should always dedicate ourselves to being truly and completely client centered in our work.
As public defense lawyers we fight for people who without us would have no one when faced against the full force of the Government. A fact this young man expressed to me many, many times. He explained how he had no one else in this world on whom he could depend. More than once he told me how when things went sideways, he knew I would always be there. Not with judgement or scorn, but with a willing ear and a desire to help him find his way back in the right direction. I knew he needed me. By staying with him, by his side, I demonstrated through my actions that I would always be there for him. When everyone else in his life abandoned him, I would not. Without me, he felt as though he had no hope. With me, he felt the strength and will to fight. He did not feel alone. He did not feel powerless. With me fighting for him, advancing his narrative, he knew he had a voice in court. That the voice was expressing his position; his goals in the case as the client, and not mine as his lawyer. Had I transferred his case, I would have violated that trust. I would have turned my back on him and abandoned him in his time of need, just like everyone else in his life before. I would have left him with the impression that his public defender was more concerned about his case than him as a person. It is vitally important that we make our jobs about the people we serve and not the cases we defend. When we show the people we represent that we are there for them and not the other way around, we can change lives, regardless of the outcome of the case.
As public defense lawyers we can take the lead of changing the culture of criminal defense, demonstrating why it is so important to follow the client centered path both through our words, but also through our actions. To lead by example. To show the way in the hopes that others will follow our lead. When we advocate both in court and in the public, we can change the narrative of what it means to provide zealous representation from “holding the Government to their Burden” and “everyone deserves their day in court”, to fighting to have every person treated with the same level of humanity, dignity, and respect. By committing ourselves to the fight, by never backing down, by talking about our clients and the respect they deserve as human beings and citizens, instead of only focusing on the Government’s case, we can change the narrative being heard by our clients, the media, prosecutors, judges, and potential jurors. We must show that the treatment and respect afforded all people charged with crimes should be the same, regardless of the color of their skin or their socio economic status.
We can lead this fight to change the narrative because as public defense lawyers we represent people who because of their charges or their personalities are those the criminal prosecution machine traditionally ignores. It is for those people that we need to stay even more, not less committed to the client–centered path. Every person deserves justice and respect, not just those with no criminal record, a pleasant personality, or a lot of money. We must constantly fight against the pro–police, pro–prosecution, anti–accused narrative that dominates the media and the general public conversation about the criminal court system. We must humanize each and every person we represent, regardless of their background or the crimes with which they have been charged. We must continuously and consistently show through our words and our actions that every human life placed in our care deserves the same protections by and from the law, regardless of who they are or that of which they have been accused. Since I found my way onto the client centered path, there has been no case I wish I did not get; no client who I wished was not mine, no client’s story I wished I did not have to tell. I am proud and honored to represent every life placed in my care.
We must show why it is so honorable and essential to truly serve as client centered public defense lawyers. Our willingness to passionately defend people regardless of the nature of the crime; to be truly client centered is our work; to treat every person we represent with equal respect; and to humanize each life we defend, which makes serving as a public defense lawyers so special. We accept every person we are appointed to represent, without prejudice or judgment. We defend their lives; we fight for their freedom; we demand each be treated with dignity and respect, not because of what they can do for us, but rather based solely on the value we know each has and deserves as a human being. No person we represent deserves anything less.
Living the client–centered life is not easy; no one ever said it was. However, may times what is right, is that which is the most difficult to achieve. It would be far easier not to follow the client centered path. However, the “victories” we have will be far greater, more numerous, and more fulfilling if we instead choose the difficult road of client centered representation. I did, and it has made me a better lawyer, a more zealous advocate, and a better person. The impact that following this path has had, is not limited to me, my career, and the lives of my clients. Client centered lawyers leave a favorable impression on the clients, their clients’ families, and those who see us fight in court and the public eye.
I wish I could tell you I saved the young man in this story from state prison; I did not. If I wanted a profession that provided Hollywood endings, I never would have chosen to be or remain a public defender. I am still angry about the case and the fact he will soon be locked away in a cage. However, when the jury returned their guilty verdict, they showed how they had been changed by the battle we fought. Jurors expressed how angry they were at the prosecution for going forward with the case, forcing them to find him guilty. Most importantly, the young man’s mind was changed. He told me more than once that he did not trust public defenders, wishing he had the money to hire a “real lawyer”. “Public defenders never listen to me and only want to force me to plea”, he would say.
As he was being led to the elevator to the jail, he turned to me and said “Don’t kill yourself Mr. Vitale. I’ll be okay. You fought for me. You believed in me. This time won’t defeat me, because you gave me what no one before ever did. What I never had for myself. Self–respect”. As much as I hate the next chapter in this young man’s life—a chapter I can’t help but feel I played a part in writing—I believe it will not be the end of this story. I know that both of our lives are a little better for what we went through. They are better because we went through it together. This small victory would never have been possible had I not found the client–centered path and stayed committed to its teachings. Who’s next ?