Destination Unknown

I think they mean well. In fact, I know they do.

But, I get asked it a lot. "So, what are you doing after the public defender's office?"

Generally, if the question comes from someone I don't know too well, or I just don't feel like discussing it, I avoid it by saying something like, "Oh, hmmm... let's see. I'll probably head out, get dinner, go home and watch Tivo. I really think West Wing is shaping up to be better than it's been since Sorkin left. Have you been watching it?"

But, I guess there will come a time when I have to ask myself, what am I going to do after the public defender's office? Or, perhaps more importantly, when will that time come?

My office has a "recommended" 3 year stay. There's no contract, it's not a commitment, but there's an informal agreement that if they're going to put the time and energy into training you, you'll stick around for 3 years so they can get their money's worth out of you. But there's also no rule that I have to leave on my 3-year-anniversary.

The people in my office run the range. There's a lot of lawyers in the 0-4 year range, there are some lawyers in the 4-10 year range, and then there are a few lawyers that have been there 10 years or more ("lifers"). There are also quite a few lawyers with 10+ years experience who had left, went into solo or private practice or did something else, and then came back.

I've been at the office for two-and-a-half years. So, if I have any intent to leave after 3 years, it would be time to start looking. But I still feel like I have a lot more to learn and I still feel like I have a lot more experience to gain.

As far as burnout, I think I occasionally feel exhausted, but I think it's more of "I need a vacation" burn out than "I need a new job" burn out. Overall, I would say that I am still in love with my job.

Not too long ago, I was on trial, I was super stressed out, and I found myself wishing I could be something absolutely intelligence-free and absolutely stress-free. Like, a grocery store shelfer. (No offense, grocery store shelfers. But I'm sure you never stay up all night worrying about your work.) Mostly, though, I interpreted this as trial stress and the need for a vacation.

But I also am concerned about becoming a lifer. Because I think that at some point you get typecast as a public defender and it becomes hard to get out. I know one lawyer in my office who had over 10 years of experience, who was actively looking for a new job, interviewing, and getting rejected. He told me that he felt like he had stuck around the PD's office too long, and that it was a factor against him.

And, finally, I don't know what else I would want to do. I mean, I guess I would probably be just as happy doing private criminal defense. But I'd want to stick with solely doing criminal defense. (In other words, I don't want to be at a small firm where I will sometimes get stuck doing a divorce or some crap.) But I think that I need at least a little more training and experience before I'm ready to handle my own clients without much more training or assistance.

Is there anything else I'd want to do? Any other dream jobs? Certainly not as a lawyer. Sometimes I think about being coming a not-a-lawyer. Maybe I could teach (college or law school, maybe trial advocacy). I'd really like to teach a clinic. I also occasionally think about just being a public defender somewhere else, maybe even internationally. But it's also very possible that I'll never find anything else I want to do as much as I want to be a public defender.

I guess the point is, I'm sticking around at least a while longer. I worry that I will make this decision and then forget about it, and the next thing I know, I'll wake up and realize that I've been a public defender for 20 years. I feel like maybe I need to send myself an email in the future that says, "Hello? Are you still there? Time to move on!" But at the same time, I'm not positive that being a lifer is a bad thing.

Most importantly, though, I think I feel a little offended by the question because it implies that my job is a "starter job." That it couldn't possibly be a destination career, which I kind of feel it is for me. This is what I've wanted to be for quite a while. I'm finally here, and I'm just getting started.


  1. I know how you feel. The only other thing I can think of doing after being a public defender is just... a different kind of public defender. I have thought about teaching, too, like you.
    But you probably don't need to set an alarm clock. It seems like everyone reaches a point where they do think about doing something else and I think it's great that you aren't yet at that point.

  2. It seems to me that the only way in which being a public defender is a "starter job" is that it requires a lot of energy and dedication -- things that tend to wane a bit for most lawyers over time. I very much respect and admire the "lifers" I've known in the office where I interned and during my clinic experience b/c these are the people who know the most about what they are doing. They have accomplished things I can only dream of and they have what appear to me to be very satisfying and high quality lives. I don't know if I will be a public defender for three or 30 years, but I know I could do much, much worse than to have a life like those "lifers" have. (Of course, I need to get a job as a public defender before I can worry about how long I can keep it, but I'm trying to remain optmistic about that part....)

  3. I love your response to strangers! People always say that I'm going to make lots of money in private and stuff or say that they want to hire me and I say 'too bad, ya can't!' I don't think I would be disappointed if I never had to worry about collecting money from clients. Sure, I may never have a nice new BMW, but I don't have self-esteem problems due to the size of my penis.

    Seriously, I usually say that I love my jobby job. I want to do death penalty work. It will take a lot more experience before I'm up for that and, as we all know, almost all of the DP work is appointed/PD work, so that's my answer! If I'm feeling surly, I'd disarm them by saying something clever like "There are three types of people in this world : those who can count, and your mom."

  4. Are you reading my mind? This is the exact conversation I was having as I was smoking my 21st cigarette while watching my 20th drug buy video of the day. My mom called me this morning to find out how I would be spending my day, and I said watching drug buys, visiting the local jails, the usual. She responded- so what are your plans, your two years are up next month, aren't they? Aaah, I don't see myself as a lifer, and god do I need a vacation, but why does everyone keep implying that I am too good for the public defender's office and that I need to turn tail and run the minute I reach two years. Yeah- I have had my run-in with my boss, my clients, my prosecutors, and my judges. (Sorry I just stressed myself out I think I need a 22nd cigarette) But why is it assumed that I am fed up? Why is assumed that I can’t be satisfied with what I do, with the wacky things I get to do, with the experience I am gaining? I don’t complain that much…. do I?

  5. I think it's Mom's job to tell you not to be a PD. You should've heard my Mom in my old job, working in the state prisons. I keep trying to tell her that it's better being a PD than a DA, usually my clients have a lot more reason to hate DA's than to hate me.

  6. You could always move up to post-conviction and/or capital defense. God knows we need good attorneys there.

  7. Given the confidence and command with which you write about some of your work issues, I was pretty surprised to hear that you've only been at this for under three years. Good job!

  8. These questions have always concerned me, but mostly because I hate seeing excellent attorneys “move on” for any reason. Why does being a PD have to be analogous to being a medical resident, where after some arbitrary number of years you’re determined to now have the proper training to go out and be a “real attorney”? (Nobody used that term, but isn’t that where the question too often comes from, at least from non-attorneys?)

    I’ve seen the burn-out factor and the slide into just-going-through-the-motions as the fire in the belly turns to smoldering ashes. But I’ve also seen the brilliance of those PDs who have the experience to battle the most difficult and thankless cases with their heads held high, experience they got from years and years of fighting in the trenches.

    Sure, it’s a thankless job. Sure, caseloads are generally so far above the ABA recommendations that any small hope of ever seeing the bottom of the pile can only be called delusion. Sure, your clients think you are in cahoots with the prosecution. And sure, it would be nice to have a life outside the office, a life not defined by the long hours and worries about the next day, a life less affected by sleep deprivation and exhaustion.

    You’d be crazy not to get out as soon as possible.

    But it’s the crazies who make life interesting. And in the world of criminal justice, it’s the public defenders who make the difference and who hold the system to its promises. And whenever good lawyers leave there is a part of me that thinks, “The bastards took another one.”

    A Too-Often-Frustrated Investigator

  9. Who says you can't teach a class now? I know a number of litigators who teach one or two night classes a term, and still maintain busy practices. It could be a way to beef up your resume without having to make a commitment to a complete career change right now.

  10. Although it might not seem like it, but you are actually being complimented each time someones says that to you. We all know that no one goes into public defense work for the money and chances are you are quite good at what you do. The person making the comment feels you would probably make lots of money out there in the private sector. I actually started out doing criminal work and loved it for a time. The clients were always polite, and extremely grateful for whatever miracles or lack thereof that I accomplished. Some of these guys were really hardcore, murderers and the like. Finally it was the victims that really got to me. Looking at some pretty horrifying sights and realizing there was a lot of damage done by my clientel, made me leave that area to delve into some really pleasant stuff like divorce! Yeah, grocery stocker sometimes sounds really appealing! Follow your heart and when you start feeling that knot in your stomach on Sunday evening thinking about work the next know it is time to move on. Until then fight the good fight~!

  11. I loved being a Legal aid lawyer. I just hated working for Legal aid. I was not the type of guy who could work well for someone else I guess. I run a private shop and I love the stress of it. I like deciding which client pays for my time which case I will take for free. I like working with our associates and building a practice. Mostly I like the wider breathe of law I can practice.

    I enjoy handling Federal cases and State cases. I like arguing a brief in the 2d Circuit one day and arguing a motion in the local city court the next. I want to do both trials and appeals.

    I also enjoy the "other" cases that have criminal issues in them but aren't strictly criminal by catagory (ie the domestic violence divorce, the arson defense, qui tam whistleblower cases against some Corp that is ripping off the public Fisc. A civil Rico case, etc)

    For me Criminal law is such an open, interesting, area of law I want to pick the fruits that I want to eat.

    When I was a LAS lawyer and people asked me when I was going to leave I said that if and when if felt like the time, I would know. I left after winning 7 trials in a row only to be told by my supervisor I was an excellent attorney who dressed poorly! Since I was wearing 3 peice suits from Barneys NY I had to assume he meant I didn't fit the culture of the Society. (They liked us to look like the clients) I said right there I quit. Without a backup job or a plan. It was the right move for me. Two months later I was earning double what I did at LAS working in an office with my newlywed wife and handling indigents and rich people without knowing who was who. I answered only to myself and the client. It was scary at first, now it is home. I make the hours I want and come and go as I please. I could never have taken care of my Wife during her long illness if I worked for someone else.

    If a time comes when you are going to leave, something tells me you will know too. Who knows maybe you'll send us a resume and we can group blog!