Writing This Farewell…
Dear Public Defender Family,
I have been writing this farewell in my head for a long time. For the past 35 years and 7 months I have woken up every working day and walked into a courtroom and identified myself on the record as “Deputy Public Defender”. This Thursday, July 30th, I will do it for the very last time. I have spent nearly 80|PERCENT| of my adult lifetime in this office, though it seems like a lot more. At this point it is really difficult to remember a time when I wasn’t a Public Defender.
I was not someone who had always wanted to be a PD, in fact I was fairly certain that I was not well suited for this job. While Criminal Law and Procedure were the only classes that I found mildly interesting in Law School, I knew that I could never be a DA and I didn’t think that I was _______ (fill in the blank-“strong”, “brave”, “smart”, “hardworking”, “committed”) enough to join the rank of the Public Defender’s Office. Right out of law school I dabbled in a different area of Public Interest work and then landed in the PD’s office by sheer kismet. From that first day, January 2, 1985 I knew that I had found a home here, that I was born to this life.
At this point there are only a handful of attorneys who have Employee numbers lower than mine, even fewer who are still in the courtroom rather than in the halls of management. The children born to my compatriots from the early days of my career are now grown, some have made those co-workers grandparents, some have become Public Defenders themselves. I have seen a former client become a close personal friend and another become a colleague. TCIS (The LA County computer system) had just come online when I started and it appears that it has outlasted me (though only just barely). My husband has only known me as a Public Defender. My children grew up with those experiences only PD children can describe; detours after baseball practice to check out a crime scene, cautionary tales when Mom picks up a new client who fell into foolishness after hanging out with the wrong crowd, evening or weekend plans being disrupted because Mommy is in trial (again), the awkwardness that comes when your parent runs into a former witness, juror or client at the grocery store, those constant parental reminders of how to act when approached by law enforcement.
I have loved the work of being a Public Defender. As a Jew I was raised with the notion that it is my obligation to work towards “Tikkun Olam”-the repairing of our broken world. My career as a PD has given me the opportunity to work at the ground level to try and effect change in the lives of my clients, to help them out of a bad spot, to get them access to services that they need, to get them properly diagnosed and pointed in the right direction, and, on occasion, help them find the justice that they seek. When my client stands in court I am there right beside them, for sometimes the greatest gift we can give our clients is the sense that they are not in the battle alone. The truth is, though, that the part of this job that kept me coming back for the 35 years has been the people.
When I used to speak at law schools about being a Public Defender I would wax poetic about the true diversity of our staff. We are diverse not only in terms of race, gender and ethnicity, but in economic and life-experience backgrounds as well. I have worked with people whose families were on food stamps and those who were connected with the most wealthy and influential in our society. People came to work with us who had been actors, warzone photographers, fashion models, police officers and convicted felons. I went through training with the legendary Jimmy McDonald who attached his rap sheet to his application to the office and taught me all of the State Prison lingo that this 20 something Jewish girl from the Valley needed to know in order to gain the trust and respect of my OG clients.
Over the years my non-PD friends (I have a few) and my family have marveled at the strength of our community. Public Defenders witnessed my wedding to Peter and the bris of our son, Matthew. Public Defenders were present with me at the best moments of my life and the worst ones as well. As my son Matthew was sustained on life support at UCLA Hospital Public Defenders weaseled their way past security and held my hand through that long night. One of the SMPD detectives who held me in the ICU as I sobbed that night is now an investigator with our office. You helped me through the unimaginable, the burial of my little boy. In the weeks and months that followed you sat with me at my home-late every night-to make sure that I felt the support of our community. You raised money for Teen Line, fed my family and even cleaned my bathroom. When I returned to work you drove me to and from until I could safely drive myself. In the years since his death you have continued to find ways to honor Matthew’s memory and for this, above all else, I am eternally grateful.
While it is hard to leave you, I know that it is the right time (and not just because I am too much of a dinosaur to learn the intricacies of CCMS-the new office case management system). The posted and private messages that you have been sending have brought me to tears. I know that I can be outspoken, too judgmental and a bit self-righteous. For my sins of omission and commission, I ask for forgiveness. I leave this experience as a Public Defender forever changed. Once you get past that first decade there comes a shift in your DNA, a mutation of a gene, and you can never go back to how you were before. I have lost clients to death by suicide and to “mysterious” circumstances in the jails. I have held crying parents who know that they are not likely to see their child outside of a custodial facility. I have celebrated with clients and received the joyful thanks of their families. I have lived my life in lockstep with the people in this office and hope to be with you for whatever celebrations and life cycle events come to us in the years ahead. It doesn’t get harder than this job. It doesn’t get better than this job. It doesn’t get more important than this job, whether you work here as an attorney (including managers), a secretary, paralegal, Social worker, Investigator or in the supportive administrative services.
This isn’t really a job, it is a true calling. We aren’t an office, we are a tribe. Unlike most other tribes, you are not born into this community. You ask to join and you are chosen. Thank you for accepting me as a member.