The Blonde Justice Mailbag

It's time to go to the Blonde Justice Mailbag.

An interpreter (who I think is this Court Interpreter, but I'm not positive), writes:
Hi, I read your blog every so often and just wondered if you get to work with court interpreters and what you think of them. I met some fantastic PDs in city court and now I'm with federal defenders on a lot cases and they seem more passionate on the whole, about their clients' predicaments.

Working with court interpreters is a huge part of my job and on the whole, I think they're great people. We really depend on them, and they usually go the extra mile to help us out whenever they can. For example, I've had times when the court is shutting down, everyone is trying to get out of there, and I have one client left who needs an interpreter. Sometimes there will be some pressure from the court, "Can't he just understand enough? Does he really need an interpreter?" But I've found that most interpreters are willing to stay late or do a little extra running around (covering more courtrooms than they're supposed to, for instance) to make sure that no one has to go without an interpreter.

And, no, my client does not "understand enough." The thing that some people have a hard time understanding is that even if you understand "enough English" to have a conversation, or even to rob someone in English, it doesn't mean that you can understand what goes in a courtroom.

If you've read this blog, you know that my English-speaking clients don't always understand what is going on, even though I explain it twenty times. For instance, how many times do my clients say, "Oh that case? That case was dismissed." Guess what "dismissed" means to my clients? It means that they pled guilty. And they're not just trying to trick you about whether the case was dismissed or not - they really think that the fact that they don't have to come back to court anymore means that it is "dismissed." If my English speaking clients don't get it, I don't expect speakers of other languages to get it.

I try to learn other languages, and I can speak quite a bit of Spanish and a little bit of a lot of other languages. When we're not too busy (how often is that?) I like to try out my language skills. Some of the interpreters are really patient in at least letting me try to introduce myself. The Spanish interpreter will sometimes let me do my interview in Spanish, occasionally interjecting to correct my grammar. I like to think that it helps the client trust me, to know that I make an attempt to learn his language.

What don't I like? There are a few interpreters who don't translate, and just decide to play lawyer and take over the interview. I come in to the pens area, and I start my interview by saying, "Hi! My name is Blonde Justice, I'm a lawyer with the Public Defender's office, I'm going to be your lawyer today." I pause for the interpreter to translate. I hear her translate what I just said (even in a language I don't understand, I recognize my name), and then keep going, and keep going, and keep going. My client says something, and instead of translating, she just responds. Wait, wait, wait! I need to know exactly what my client is saying! I know that the interpreter thinks she's being helpful - she think it will be quicker to do what she thinks are the important questions and then give me a summary. But, no, that's not going to cut it. I can't risk missing something just because the interpreter didn't think it was worth mentioning to me.

Overall, though, I really like the interpeters. They're good people and sometimes the only other friendly face in the courtroom. Even though, of course, they're neutral, I feel like at least they're on my client's side - they wouldn't be there if they didn't want to help my client better navigate the system. Which is essentially my job too.

Another reader writes (this one edited to preserve some anonymity, at the writer's request):
Hi Blondejustice- I'm a third year law student at a fairly prestigious school. I enjoy reading your blog. I have an interview with the __________ Public Defender next week and wondered if you can offer any advice. I work in a PD's office through a legal clinic at my school, but I've also summered in a DA's office and in a previous PD interview, I think this hurt me. I'd really appreciate any tips you have as I genuinely enjoy PD work and would really like to get this job. Thanks.

Hmmm... this is a tough one. I hope everyone will feel free to contribute in the comments. (I know some of the other PD bloggers have actually interviewed prospective PDs, so they might be have a better perspective on this.)

First, let me deal with the fact that you summered in a DA's office. I personally don't think that there's anything wrong with that, but I know that there are definitely people in my office who think that if you could even consider working in the DA's office, you aren't made for PD work. I don't agree.

But I think you may need to explain why you summered at the DA's office and what you learned from it. You want to stay away from completely bad-mouthing the DA's office (even though we do it all the time), because I think it looks unprofessional.

Consider these responses. Candidate one says, "Yes, I summered at the DA's office my first summer. I really just want trial experience and I feel like I could argue both sides, and get that experience on either side." Sure. Hey, at least you're honest, and you're not going to be a plea machine. But as far as I'm concerned, I'd rather hire someone a little more committed and let you get your experience elsewhere. Candidate two says, "I went to law school because I wanted to help people. I thought that I could do the most by being a D.A.: I could listen to complaining witnesses and make sure that defendants get the help that they need. After a summer in the D.A.'s office, I realize that I can do more good as a public defender. The D.A.s just didn't have the autonomy to do the good they could have been doing. I know now that the P.D.'s office is a better fit for me..." I think any interviewer would pick candidate two over candidate one.

And, I think that if you're getting an interview with the P.D.'s office with a resume that reflects your summer at the D.A.'s office, they're obviously not automatically precluded you because of your experience. You just need to think ahead about how you want to answer questions about it (and whether you want to bring it up if the question isn't posed). You also need to think about your response and how it's going to sound to the P.D.'s office. (Feel free to try it out on us.)

As for the rest of the interview, I guess I'd just give all of the regular interview tips: be yourself, be open and honest, be enthusiastic. I also think it would be a good idea to call ahead or ask the person who sets up your interview if there's anything special you need to prepare for your interview. Some of the offices I interviewed with did mock arraignment interviews, mock bail apps, or even mock summations during the interviews. If there's going to be a case file or something to look through, it'd be helpful to have that as early as possible. If there is something in particular you can prepare, you should practice it in front of many people as you can: your professors (especially a trial ad professor or other actual professional who works in the field), your friends, and your family.

I also think that you should be prepared to ask questions. If I interviewed someone and they didn't have any questions I'd think that either they really knew everything there is to know about my job (is that possible???) or they're just not that interested. And there are so many questions you can ask: What is the intake process? What kinds of cases would I handle? How and when do I advance to more serious cases? What's a typical day like? What's your caseload? What kind of training and supervision is provided? How is your office different from another nearby P.D.'s office? How many cases do the attorneys in your office take to trial? How about new attorneys? Wow... I could just go on all day.

I hope this helps! Please let me know if you have more specific questions. And I'm really hoping my commenters will jump in with more helpful suggestions.


  1. It's great that you take time out of your schedule to help those seeking advice from you. Keep up the good work!

  2. I like the fact that when the People's second exhibit gets marked "P2," that gets translated as "farts."

  3. Hola! :)

    Thanks for the comment about interpreters. Your insight forces me to accept the fact that mediocre interpreters who don't respect their ethical obligations are still out there ...

    Any court interpreter who tries to be "helpful" by summarizing or adding, or omitting, etc, is ultimately a danger to the legal community.

    I'd also add that any attorney or courtroom player, for that matter, who speaks a little Spanish, can also pose a potential danger if they don't accept their own language limitations. A little knowledge can be dangerous.


    Court Interpreter

  4. Great post!

    I just started a new legal blog to addess some of the issues you've raised about working with interpreters and cultural differences in the practice of law.

    I wrote "A Lawyer's Guide to Cross-Cultural Depostions," and thought it would be of interest to your readers. It can be found at:

    Best regards,