Hump Day Inspiration

Another work story? Could it be? 2 days in a row? Amazing. And you thought this blog was just about reality tv...

As I think I've mentioned here before, the two kinds of clients that annoy me most are: 1. Clients that can could afford private counsel (but somehow got away with being assigned a pubic defender); and 2. Clients with an overly-involved wife, girlfriend, or baby momma (or any combination thereof.)

Today I had two messages among my many voicemails that stood out as exactly those kinds of clients.

One of the messages was from a woman, calling on behalf of her husband (yes, that counts as category #2), because she's "interviewing" potential lawyers to hire, but as she said in the voice mail, "I want to interview you to see if you'll be as good as a real lawyer." (And, there we go, that sounds like category #1.) We have a double winner. Um, yeah, ok, you're on the top of my list to call. I'll get right on that.

Second message was from a man, who, I had already figured out from his file, is a white, middle age, upper-middle-class client who has been assigned to me in a non-traditional way. (Meaning that my office took the case for a reason other than "He's-poor-and-can't-afford-a-lawyer" and now I'm stuck dealing with him.) He asks me to call him back because he has a few questions about his case and he would like to know what is going to happen on the next court date, and he would like to know how likely it is that the case will get dismissed on the next court date, and how many times he will have to come back to court for this case, and why haven't they dismissed it yet since obviously the complainant doesn't want to go forward... finally, thankfully, my voice mail cuts him off. Here's a hint, if my voice mail has to cut you off, you probably won't end up very high on my list of people to call back.

Next message...

Oh, guess who it is again... the white man (who can afford a lawyer). This time, he starts off by leaving the date of his arrest, the date of his arraignment, his docket number (which, for some reason, EVERY client calls a "document number." As in, Hey, I've never heard of a "docket" or a "docket number," so therefore, my lawyer must be just saying it wrong, so I'll change it to what must be right and call it a "document number" and maybe she'll pick up on it and start pronouncing it right), the arrest number, the name of the complainant, his next court date, his home phone number, his cell phone number, his work number... As if the reason that I haven't called him back yet was because I didn't have enough numbers to go by.

And here's the thing about clients who leave multiple messages: I don't like them. Now, see, I recognize the conflict. Most of the time, I'm amazed at how much my clients don't seem phased by being arrested. They don't know their lawyer's name, they don't know their next court date, they get rearrested and it doesn't occur to them that they should call their lawyer, it's time for trial and it doesn't occur to them that they should maybe try to get in touch with their lawyer. With most of my clients, I wish they'd call me. Like Lammers, I wish they'd show up for a meeting or do something, anything, to show me that they care about their case. But then there are a few who check in way too much. And, I can't blame them. Hell, if I were arrested, I'd be worried. I'd probably call my lawyer ten times a day. So, fine, ok, I shouldn't be too offended by a second message...

But do you want the reason why I haven't called you back yet? It's because I'm listening to your second message. And the third. And, if you figure that I had about 3 minutes per client allocated to returning phone calls... then you just blew your 3 minutes with your 3 messages.

Oh wait, there's one more.

In messages three and four, Mr. White Guy Client wants to know if maybe there's some way his case has been dismissed (um, what, since your last message?), if he should call the D.A. (the answer is always NO!), if there's someone he should call to tell them it was all a mistake (um, I guess that would be me, so consider it done), how many times he'll have to come back to court for this case (probably a lot), what are the chances that this case will be dismissed on the next court date (slim to none), and why they haven't dismissed his case yet (um, seriously, do you mean since the beginning of the message?).

And that's another thing. Clients seem to have this bizarre idea, and I have no idea where they get it, that cases just spontaneously get dismissed for no reason whatsoever. Like, "Eh, we thought about it, and nah, we shouldn't bother this guy anymore..." And then they always tell you this as if it's fact. "Oh, that case? Oh, that one is getting dismissed." Really, why? "Oh, it was just a possession." Oh, and, what, they legalized possession now so they're dismissing all of the cases? Good to know. Thanks for filling me in, since the legislature didn't bother to.

But back to the story. Generally clients like this and messages like this drive me crazy. And, as much as I think "I'm never calling you back, jerk!" I generally call all of my clients back pretty quickly. Especially the annoying ones, because I just want to get it over with.

But, today, I was just too busy. And I didn't get to call them back until about 7 p.m. By then, I was just exhausted and I just wanted to return their calls so I wouldn't have to deal with them in the morning.

First I called back Mr. White Client. I tried my best to explain the whole process. What has happened so far in court, what will happen on the next court date, ways that the case is likely to be disposed of, when and how the case could get dismissed, what I would be doing with his case between now and the next court date, and what he should do between now and the next court date. And, I guess maybe it was because I had some time to cool off before I called him back, but I was an unusually sweet version of myself.

And you want to know what he said to me?

He said, "Miss Justice, I don't know what to say to you. You have done so much to help me and reassure me. I was so afraid when I got arrested, and everyone from your office was so kind to me. I've been thinking about it... and I don't know how you do it. I was thinking that if I had called my friends or my family, no one could have helped me out as much as you did, and you have already put so much time into my case, and you don't even know me. I served this country in Vietnam. And I'm happy to know that I did it for wonderful young people like you. I'm not a born again Christian or anything, but I go to church. And ever since I got arrested, I've been saying a prayer for you. I hope this case will be over soon, and I hope I'll never end up in this situation again, but if I am, then I'm glad that there are lawyers like you."

Wow. I bet you were expecting something bad, weren't you? Yeah, I kind of was too.

And I just said, "Well, thank you very much. I appreciate it." And we got off the phone. And, feeling refreshed from that, I took a deep breath and called my other client's wife. The one who was "interviewing" lawyers.

All the while thinking, "Guess what. I already have a job, I don't need to go on interviews."

In the past few months, I've made a rule against dealing with my clients' families, and deal only directly with my client unless my client specifically asks me to do otherwise. I feel like it cuts down on the number of times I have to repeat the same story for everyone in the family (if my client asks me to speak to his family, I ask him to name one family member who will be my liaison and to direct everyone else to direct their questions through him or her), and it just cuts down on a lot of the baby mama drama ("Your his wife? I just spoke to his wife yesterday. Oh, well, she said she was his wife.") which I just can't deal with.

But this client has asked me to deal directly with his wife, because her English is better than his. So, I called her back.

And, I did the same thing. (Sometimes, I really wish I had a recording.) I explained the case, and what would happen next, and what to expect in the next few weeks. I tried my hardest to explain it in a simple, yet informative, sympathetic manner that I would want someone to use with my mother if something ever happened to me. And I kept reminding myself of the kind client's words in the last phone call.

When she said, "Well, people said a real lawyer would be better," I told her that my belief is that if someone can afford to hire a lawyer they should - it helps starving lawyers pay their rent, and it leaves valuable resources (that's me!) for those who need it most. I told her that there are very good private lawyers and not-as-good private lawyers, just like there are very good public defenders and not-as-good public defenders. I told her that the advantage of a private lawyer is that they may have a smaller caseload, but that I'd do my best to give her husband's case all of the attention it required. And, of course, I threw in that I'm a "real" lawyer who graduated from a "real" law school and passed the very same "real" bar as private attorneys. I just work for a different kind of law firm.

It's hard, because sometimes when a client mentions hiring a private lawyer, I almost feel like I should do my best to blow them off. I mean, maybe if they see that I don't care that much, or I'm not so great, they'll go hire a private lawyer. And I do believe that if you can afford to hire a private attorney, you should. But, on the other hand, I can't bring myself to feed into peoples' negative perception of public defenders. Well, except for a few select clients - they can think whatever they want of me, as long as it works and I can get rid of them.

She told me that the lawyers she had spoken to had quoted her prices up to $5K, (For a misdemeanor assualt! Private lawyers, is this what you're really getting?) and while she certainly couldn't afford that, she still wanted to know if "you get what you pay for."

We talked more about the case. How she had heard through the grapevine that the complainant doesn't want to go forward, but understood that this kind of gossip isn't always reliable. And she wanted to know how it was that her husband was arrested when he was just defending himself. Why hadn't the police listened to both of their stories and then decided who to arrest? She felt that because her husband didn't speak English as well, his story was ignored. He has injuries, too, and the police didn't even care about that.

She said something that I hear so often, especially from immigrant or first-generation Americans: She had expected a lot more from the justice system. She said that she thought the system was run by smart people - lawyers and judges who knew the laws, but was disappointed to find that the police had so much power to make a decision based on so little information. And she's right about that.

I told her that I agreed with her. And I told her that I hoped she would spread the word. That the next time she's called for jury duty, she'll come out and speak her mind. That she should tell everyone she knows that the police aren't always right, and that just because someone is arrested it doesn't mean they did something wrong. That her husband will speak up and tell people that he was arrested (hopefully, after the case is over) so that his friends will think, "Wow, he is such an upstanding citizen. If he can get arrested, anyone can," and remember that the next time they come in for jury duty.

We talked for a while, then I told her that she should let me know before the next court date whether she had hired a private attorney so I could prepare a copy of the paperwork.

And she said, "Miss Justice, I'll keep looking. But, so far, you're the only one who has really taken the time to listen to me and explain everything to me. I think that you may be the best lawyer for my husband's case. I'll keep looking, but in the meantime, I'll do what you said and spread the word about the police. And I'll spread the word that the public defenders are really good too."

It was a good way to end the day.


  1. GREAT post. And I was so touched that Mr. White Guy Client profusely thanked you.

    (And the "document number" cracks me up.)

  2. This is such a nice post. I am sure there are also clients that make you want to tear your hair out, but how nice of these people to be so grateful.

    (linked from APL)

  3. Yay! You're right: what a lovely way to end the day.

  4. Awww, this was very touching, to the point of making me feel somewhat guilty for not being a public defender. :)

  5. How great that Mr. White Guy Client was so nice.

    $5,000 for a misdemeanor?? It makes me wonder what other charges there are or what his record is that you haven't been told about yet.
    (My boss had a "friend" who said he knew someone who was quoted $7,500 for a DV charge. So my boss said sure, give him my name and number, I'll help him. When I did some research on the guy, though, I found out it was DV(history of), resisting arrest and assaulting a police officer. Oops, someone left a few things out. )

  6. I always like to read work stories like this. I was sooooo ready to get irritated about some middle class white guy who was lucky enough to get a PD, then complain about the service he was receiving. Remembering these people/clients on those days when it feels like you can’t do anything right makes everything better sometimes.

  7. After 8 years of being a PD, I can so relate to this post! Experiences like that are too few and far between, though. But, after weeks and weeks (maybe even months and months) of the other kind of client...finding a grateful one, who actually appreciates the work we do, can make the job actually feel worthwhile (it always is worthwhile, it just doesn't always feel that way). At least for a little while longer.

  8. Great post. On the $5k issue; I do both appointed indigent defense and private cases. Remember that theprivate lawyer who is quoting $5k is not pocketing the wholeing for amount; its paying for his rent, utilities, malpractice insurance, phone bill, secretary's salary, health insurance, etc. Also, he has to get paid up front, in full, or he'll probably never see the money. If he needs an investigator to locate or interview a witness, that might come out of the $5k, too. And who knows what the consequences of the misdemeanor might be? It may be that, to the client, the $5k is well worth it.

    Had a client who's girlfriend wantedto know if his two entences could be "aggravated". I assumed she meant aggregated. But maybe not...

  9. That was a very nice post. Glad everything ended on a happy note-- and I'm impressed with your patience!

    I actually had a client's wife call me today to find out if her husband was appointed a "Public Offender" for his case. Uhm...

    :) PD in OC

  10. This sort of begs the question ... what's a "fair" price for basic criminal offenses?

    Obviously, this will depend a lot on who the client is, who the lawyer is, what the facts are, and where they all are, but still ... there must be some general rule of thumb.

    I'm a just-starting-out PD (graduated in May), so I'm just curious if there are any good data out there. Is there a "legal fee survey" or somesuch anyone knows about?