SERVING AS A PUBLIC DEFENDER IS NOT JUST A JOB. IT BECOMES PART OF WHO YOU ARE.
Why do you keep doing this job ? Why don't you quit and become a "real lawyer" ? You could make so much more money on the outside.
As a Public Defender, it is a question you are asked thousands of times. Sometimes you even ask it of yourself.
Whenever I meet young talented attorneys starting their careers as Public Defenders, I half–jokingly tell them they are absolutely crazy. They have the talent to get jobs working for large firms, starting at salaries that many of us may never see during our entire Public Defender career. This job can be unforgiving and thankless. They will be unappreciated, underpaid, and overworked. Their choice will expose them to one of the most difficult and challenging careers they could choose as a lawyer. However, at the same time, I tell them there is nothing else they can do in their legal careers, …. or their lives for that matter ……. that is as fulfilling and rewarding. There is no profession that involves the amount of sacrifice and commitment that lawyers make when they choose to serve as Public Defenders. They do it not for money, not for prestige, not for notoriety, but for the feeling they get by fighting for the life and liberty of another human being. Someone who without them, would not stand much of a chance, if any. Public Defenders save lives. We fight for human lives every day. We don't ask our clients what they can pay us or do for our careers. We don't ask them what by representing them will be in it for us. All we want to know is what they want us to do for them. Then we start about the task of seeing what we can do, even when it means sacrificing ourselves and our time, to help them accomplish that goal or even better. We are not always successful, but we are always completely and singularly committed to fighting to achieve the best possible result for each and every client.
Why don't you go out on your own and start making some real money ?
Last month I had one of those experiences that provided my answer. I was walking out of the courthouse after a long day in court, where things that day, had not gone how I wanted. I was tired, depressed, frustrated. Asking myself that question I have heard asked of me so many times. As I approached the exit doors, I heard "andre, ……..". I turned and saw the mass of people milling outside the courtrooms in the City Court division. Seeing no one who caught my attention, I turned to continue the solemn journey back to my office. "Andre, …….. ANDRE !!!!!, …………". The voices in my head were getting louder, I thought. I turned again and this time saw AJ cutting through the crowd, walking briskly in my direction. We hugged and said hello. AJ is a person I know well. AJ is a former client. I represented him when he was in jail having been violated on parole. He was also facing a Rape charge which had he been convicted, would have kept him in prison for a very very long time. When I first met AJ he was an angry young man. I understood why. He never knew his father. His mother could only do so much for him on her own. He had survived essentially on his own for most of his short life. No one was trying to help him out. No one ever had. His daughter’s mother wouldn't let him see his new baby. His parole officer wouldn't let him have contact with his other child. The District Attorney and Court wanted to make him a two time convicted felon and registered sex offender for the rest of his life.
AJ never truly trusted me during the time I represented him. To him, I was just another Public Defender. Just another "player" in the system. He wanted the Judge to dismiss or the DA to drop the charges. I could not make either happen. If he wanted to make these charges go away without ruining the rest of his life, he had only one choice, …… go to trial. The thought of blowing trial and spending the remainder of his twenties and thirties in State prison scared this young man to his core. But he put his faith in me and followed my advice in going to trial.
The trial was contentious and nerve–racking. AJ began to trust me as he saw me battling the DA and Judge. The first time I saw AJ smile in the months I represented him, was after the jury announced their verdict, ……. "Not Guilty". The greatest disappointment was that I never got to see AJ walk out of the jail following his acquittal. Even though he had been acquitted, even though we had proven to a jury of his peers that his accuser was mistaken or lying, the Division of Parole still insisted that he return to State prison. When AJ greeted me during our most recent encounter, he was not angry. He was not bitter. He was a mature young man, struggling to get through life's daily battles. Battles that the vast majority of us could never imagine, much less survive. As we spoke, AJ told me about how in the past few months his brother, closest cousin, and the mother of his beautiful daughter had been killed as the result of street violence. He discussed how his mother had died of cancer while he was in jail and they had refused to allow him to see her before her death or even attend her funeral. He told me the tragic story of his life, one which left me on the verge of tears.
AJ then told me something that will remain with me for the rest of my life. He said that even though he had suffered so much tragedy, so much loss in his life, he had not started to use again. If he had, anyone, everyone would have understood. But he didn't. I told him how strong he was for fighting through these trying times. But it was not the what that struck me, but the why. AJ said that he never would have made it on his own. He explained that he didn't use, because he didn't want to let me down. Me ? Who am I, I asked ? AJ told me that I gave him a second chance at life. A chance he didn't want to blow. He explained that he owed me his freedom and if he did anything to ruin it, he felt like he would be letting me down. He told me he could never live with himself if he disappointed me.
I told AJ that it is I who should be thanking him. Because while he didn’t completely trust me when I represented him, he had enough faith in my ability that he followed my advice to reject the Government’s offer and take the huge risk of going to trial. I explained to him that he was just as much a part of our trial success as was I. I may have been the person standing before the jury, but he was the one who placed it all on the line to fight for justice. I told AJ that I appreciated his thanks, but let him know that in my eyes, he was the true warrior.
After we said our goodbyes, I walked out into the cold and wind of the most recent polar vortex. But while I was cold on the outside, I was warm inside. Warm from the feeling that we do make a difference. Warm, because our commitment, our struggle does matter. Warm in the feeling that there is a life, several lives because AJ will always be there for his children, that are better due to our work, our passion, and our sacrifices.
Why do I keep doing this job. I do it for the AJ's of the world.
“We have two lives… the life we learn with and the life we live after that. Suffering is what brings us towards happiness.” â€• Bernard Malamud, The Natural