WE DEFEND PEOPLE, NOT CASES
Respect, simple respect. I demand nothing more, … I will accept nothing less.- Major Margaret Houlihan, M|STAR|A|STAR|S|STAR|H
Words to live by. They serve at the foundation of how we judge our interpersonal relationships, both professional and personal. It should be both what we expect for ourselves as human beings and as Public Defenders. It must also be a part of how we treat every person we represent.
During a calendar last week, I decided to conduct an experiment. As cases were called, I counted how many lawyers referred to the person they were representing as "my client". Of the 40 or so cases called that day, more than 35 people standing next to their lawyers, were referred to not by their first or last names; not by Mr. or Ms.; but as "my client". Unfortunately, what occurred during this calendar is not the exception, it is the rule. Too many defense lawyers treat the people they represent as "cases" and not as the human beings they are. This improper way of referring to the person who's life and liberty rests in your hands, was committed by all different types of lawyers; young and old; male and female; public and private.
As criminal defense lawyers, we represent people. Human beings whose lives and liberty have meaning. We strive—or at least should—to place the people we represent in the best position possible. We can only achieve that goal if we present the person we represent to the parties who will be making the ultimate decision about that person's fate, as a human being, in the best possible light. No one, not a District Attorney, not a Judge, not a member of the Jury, will see the person we represent as anything other than a criminal defendant, unless we as their advocate show that we respect that person as a human being. There are many things we should do to humanize the person we represent. But the most basic; the easiest thing we can do; the one thing we should be doing in every case, at every court appearance, during every trial is refer to that person by his or her name. And yet, the vast majority of the people who appear in court accused of a crime, with their life and liberty at stake, are referred to by the person who is supposed to be fighting for them, as "my client". This practice must change.
Client–Centered representation begins and ends with treating every person we represent with dignity and respect. Think about how you feel when people refer to you as their Lawyer or my PD. It can come across as belittling and insulting. I don't ask anyone to call me Mr. Vitale—and even correct those who do. My name is Andre. I will respond to anyone who addresses by my name, or Dre, Drew, Andy, and even Anthony. On the other hand, I have a much different reaction when someone starts off a conversation by saying "Hey Lawyer". Just as I expect the respect that goes with addressing me by my name (or at least a close variation of it), I give each person I represent the same level of respect.
I address every person I represent as Mr. or Ms. I refer to each person I represent the same way that I do to their faces whether it be in chambers with just the Judge and DA, when we are at the podium standing before the Court, and during trial to the Jury. I choose to use the formal manner of addressing people, because I want to show each individual the proper respect. It is only the rarest of occasions that I refer to that person by their first name, usually for strategic reasons to convey an image to whichever audience before whom I am appearing. For example, I use the person's first name when I am representing a child or an individual about whom I want to convey an image of empathy. That is not to say that I consider lawyers who refer to their clients by their first names as disrespectful. Far from it. I just chose to use the formal approach in my own practice. But whichever approach you as a criminal defense lawyer choose, choose one.
Stop the practice of referring to the person you represent as "my client". Lead with your words. Lead by example. Culture change comes slowly. We must start by changing our own actions. We must train the new generations of lawyers entering the practice of public defense, in how they should be doing their jobs in a more Client–Centered way. But don’t stop there. Be a leader and tell those lawyers living by the old tired way of doing things, how they can and should do their jobs better. We can change the system, but only if we start first, by changing ourselves.