After spending the past three years doing training for investigators, paralegals, support staff and new lawyers, I recently made my way back to trial work. I’ve been back in the trenches for about eight weeks and building my caseload with a mix of clients I meet at first appearances and clients who had other lawyers and are transferred to me.

One client is being held at the infamous Rikers Island a place with a history of violence and corruption. Before meeting my new client, I received multiple case jackets with his name, the thick kind that make every lawyer dread transfer cases. You know the cases that never really feel like your own despite how long you have them or how much you work on them. Something always feels off, like you never quite know everything. But I’m not the first lawyer to get a transfer case nor is this a post about transfer cases. What makes this particular transfer client special is the opportunity he gave me to be the client-centered lawyer I’ve been teaching and training others about.

I learned some things about my new client before I met him; I learned what he was charged with, what he had been previously charged with and how many court appearances had occurred among other things. It became apparent that there had been many court appearances where my client had not been present. A note in the file indicated the client had been refusing to appear for several court dates and that the client had refused video conferences with his lawyer. The client wrote me, asking me to visit him at Rikers Island. The words “difficult client” instantly popped into my head. At the same time, having a relatively low caseload made a visit to Rikers now, most practical.

Because of Rikers location on an island in the river between The Bronx and Queens, a visit to the jail complex is never actually "practical.”  It’s not that lawyers don’t want to visit their clients at Rikers. It’s that visits to Rikers Island aren’t easy and usually demand a whole day. A visit requires taking multiple forms of public transportation to get to the island. Once on the island you have to wait for a bus to take you to intake and then take another ancient, repurposed school bus that takes you to the facility where your client is being housed. If you are visiting multiple clients in different facilities, then you have to take more buses. If you’re lucky, your client will be in a facility which has multiple interview booths, so you don’t have to wait long before visiting with a client. I, of course, visited the facility that had only two interview booths. One booth was out of commission with a broken door. I was fortunate enough to be the only counsel visiting a client, at least for most of my visit. The rest of the visit came with constant reminders of other lawyers waiting to use the sole, functioning booth. Even if I wasn’t in a rush to complete my visit, my client definitely felt he had to curtail himself, as every time this happened he promised to be brief and talk faster, despite my reassurances he didn’t have to.

I learned a lot in the time I spent with my new client that day. My client has many concerns and frustrations, and faces many hurdles with his handling and care at Rikers. Some of his concerns I could do something about. Others I wasn’t sure I could do much about besides listen and empathize. Most of the visit I listened. I asked for permission to write things down. When he was done I read back the list of things he said and told him how I could assist.  The follow-up on my part was simple: make referral, investigate, copy paperwork, and call family. I concluded by asking client if there was anything else I should add to the list. My client’s immediate concern was a disability that prevented him from understanding court proceedings. I went back to the office and, as promised, made referrals, investigation requests, copies and calls. The day before my client’s court appearance, I went to court and alerted the court clerk and officers to my client’s disability. I inquired what we could do. I informed them that I had made a referral for assistance but that that might not be in place by tomorrow’s court date. We brainstormed small, but meaningful, modifications we could make in the courtroom to accommodate my client's disability.

On the court date, I reminded the clerk and court officers of my client and his disability. The judge was told. Others in the courtroom were notified. The officers went to get my client and when he entered the courtroom something happened . . . as he walked in from behind the door, he was no longer the “difficult defendant” who had been refusing to come to court for several dates. Instead he was treated with respect, patience and concern. All because everyone in the courtroom was aware of his story. And that my friends is the beauty of doing trial work!  As defense lawyers we get the privilege to change the narrative of how our clients are viewed by how, when and who we tell their stories to. Eight-weeks back in the trenches remind me of that. What client story have you told today?