There was a classic Budweiser commercial some years back, where an athlete was questioned about his “me first” attitude.  After blaming all his failures on his teammates, the interview ended with the following exchange: 

Reporter:     There's no “I” in Team

Athlete:        There ain't no “WE” neither

Teambuilding is just as important to providing an environment in which lawyers and other public defender staff can succeed as legal training and strictly defined rules regarding performance.  In fact, it could be even more important.

During a recent trial, I had an interesting exchange with potential juror who worked as an emergency response mechanic for a company contracted by the State Police.  Although I originally wanted to keep him, my opinion changed when he stated that he trusted the police and would give them the benefit of the doubt.  When I questioned him further, he explained his trust is a product of his experiences with the police.  He stated that while he was not a police officer, he could trust that the troopers he was there to assist would be looking out for his safety when he was performing his job.  He knew they would have his back, which made it easier for him to perform efficiently and effectively. He did not need any verbal assurances from the Troopers.  He knew they would protect him even in the direst of circumstances and in return he would be there for them in court.

As I travelled the solemn journey down Fitzhugh Street back to my office, I started to think about teambuilding and the importance of developing a strong team concept within an office.  The strength and confidence developed as a result of having a strong team concept, is something you hear about all the time with the police and military.  Every member of those units understands that an essential part of their survival and success is because every member of their team will have their back.  In return, each member understands it is his/her responsibility to support and defend every other member of the unit to the same degree.  Question any police officer or soldier about this belief and you will hear how they can trust their comrades with their life.  While this strong team concept exists in some working groups, it does not exist in all.

Teambuilding can lead to the same positive outcome in the public defense community.  As leaders, we should all be focused on working to develop a strong team concept in our offices as well as throughout the indigent defense community.  Public defender offices fight daily to provide high quality representation for each and every person they represent.  A strong team concept will further raise the level of indigent defense representation.  Providing public defender staff an environment in which to flourish and succeed can be better achieved by developing a strong team support network both within individual offices as well as through the community as a whole.  Without developing a sense of team, line attorneys, investigators, social workers, and admin staff  will not be placed in the best position to succeed.

Public defender offices are quite experienced at developing rules for their staff members to follow.  Many offices are very good at providing legal education and instruction in trial skills.  However, where it seems many offices struggle, is developing a sense of team within the office.  Yes, when there is a successful outcome at trial or in a hearing, the congratulatory emails go around.  But that is not what serves at the heart of a strong team.  The team is only strong if it is there with just as much support and assistance when staff don’t achieve the desired result.  Merely providing rigid rules and directives for staff to follow, does not provide an environment in which to succeed.  An office in which all staff feel the freedom to grow and to find their own voice in the defense of those they represent, confident in the knowledge that if they stumble, the other members of the office—leadership and all staff alike—will be there to pick them up, is one in which attorneys, support staff, and their clients will find the greatest level of success.  A strong team concept will place all the staff within that office in the best position to find success.  Not only will it provide a positive environment for optimal growth and success, it will make staff feel as though it is a place they want to spend the bulk, if not the majority of their careers.

At times, being a Public Defender can be a trying and lonely profession.  Many times we feel under fire.  When we are in court trying to defend an individual, we feel the attack from all directions.  We feel we are the only person who stands between these forces and the person we are there to defend.  When we are in court, we feel alone in these battles.  As much effort as we put in, as hard as we fight, we don’t always win.  Many times we lose the battle for the life and freedom of our clients.  It can be defeating and depressing, especially to younger staff who haven’t built a strong foundation of success.  It is incumbent upon the offices to which these solemn soldiers return after the battle, to create support structures for staff going through these difficult times. Team building is an essential component of developing this environment.  When public defender staff struggle, instead of being greeted with criticism and negative critique, they should return to a setting where they receive support, assistance, and positive reinforcement.  Attorneys and all members of trial teams, who go to trial or force the government to establish they acted within the requirements of the Constitution in seizing property, should be congratulated for the fight they are waging, regardless of the outcome.  Developing this positive, supportive team concept, will place the staff in the office in the best position to succeed.

A strong team concept builds trust.  Trust allows individuals who are part of the team, to be able to perform at a higher level, because they will be better able to focus on the goals they are working to achieve and less concerned about what will happen if they fail.  They know that if they start to struggle, the team will be there to pick them up and help them through the tough times.  People work better when they are more focused on accomplishing their goals and less on what will happen to them if they fail.  When staff are more concerned about failing or about merely following predefined and rigid rules, they become passive and less imaginative.  This passivity leads to poorer performance and less successful results.

There is a concept in some offices that competition leads to greater achievement.  This model will not work for Public Defender Offices.  A negative product of this model is it breeds a fear in young lawyers, who in turn believe that taking the path of least risk will lead to the greatest success.  “Follow the rules, keep your head down, don’t get noticed, and you will get promoted” becomes the mantra for “success” within this type of office setting.  In this environment, attorneys will be less likely to take difficult cases to trial or try new things and other staff will be less likely to share their suggestions and ideas fearing that failure will hurt their chances of advancement.  Public defender staff become more concerned about their own advancement, than about doing what is in the best interests of the people they represent.  Trying to instill an internal competitive model within a Public Defenders Office, serves neither the best interests of the staff within it nor the people they serve.  On the other hand, a team culture based upon unquestioned support and reinforcement of all staff who are dedicated to working to achieve the common goal; one that encourages imagination and innovation, and does not believe that just because something is the way it was always done means that it is the best way, is an environment that places the staff in the best position to succeed.

Team building is something that is not often considered when discussing training and development of young lawyers.  Yet the office culture and a supportive internal support network can be just as important to the success of individuals and the quality of representation for the people they serve, as legal and skills training.  Hopefully more of an effort and focus will be placed on developing strong teambuilding systems; both within individual offices as well as throughout the public defense community.