Maximum Crap

Today, I stood next to my client as he received the longest sentence any of my clients has ever received.

Moving up the career ladder has its downside.

My client took it like a pro. Maybe more of a pro than me, although, it was not the longest sentence he had ever received. And, truthfully, I wasn't completely sure that he "got it." He was still smiling like someone who maybe didn't "get it." He had a long history of mental illness, but nothing the court cared about.

The judge gave a lecture about why my client deserved the maximum sentence. The judge directed it towards me, like I had done something wrong. Her tone was so condescending, like, "How dare you ask for anything less than the maximum? Your client is so terrible..." and then gave the long version of my client's rap sheet, all in the worst possible detail. It felt strange, like I was being reprimanded, and the weirdest part of it was that I kept thinking that "I don't know where to look." I didn't want to look the judge in the eye, and I didn't want to look at my client, because I was worried about making my client feel bad, or directing the judge's attention toward him.

Afterwards, my client walked happily into the pens behind the courtroom. I'm sure that if he could have, he would have waved goodbye.

I felt like crap.

His mother hugged me in the hallway. My few years of experience have taught me a few tricks of how to avoid client hugs. But I let her.

She kept thanking me.

And I just spent the afternoon thinking, "How does a woman, who shows up for every court date and thanks a lawyer for getting her son the maximum, end up with a son who gets the maximum?"

And feeling like crap.


  1. There are times when it is obvious that the person sitting in the "high chair" has been up in that rarified air so long they've lost touch with what it's all about. Maybe this was one of those times. It happens.

  2. Yeah, that judge is out of touch. Even if she feels it necessary to explain to you why she thinks you are wrong, doesn't she understand that your job is advocacy, not personal opinion? And even if it was and she disagrees with your personal opinion, why belabor the point and waste everyone's time with such unfounded criticism? Does she not grasp the constitution or your role? Probably. My bet, she's either a former prosecutor, or a angry ex-PD, or a civil attorney who either never knew or doesn't grasp the role of the indigent advocate.

  3. Even though your client did get a long sentence, you were there for him, you represented him and were on his side -- so his mom didn't see someone who failed to get her son a light sentence, she saw someone who believed in her kid and did what she could to help him -- that's a wonderful thing! We can't always win our clients' cases, but I think we're still doing good and doing well if we can make them feel like they really do have an "advocate" and that someone cares about and believes in what they're saying.

  4. Oy. Just wanted to say I'm sorry you had a crappy day.

  5. As to where to look, I look slightly over the judges head when a judge is jamming me or my client up, otherwise I try to look at the top of the wood on the bench. More importantly, I try to place a hand on the lower back of my client (most defendants in custody here are shackled at the waist, so I place my hand slightly above the waist shackles), it lets them know they aren't alone. The advantage of looking slightly over the judges head (if I don't like them) is that it slightly elevates the head, you don't make eye contact, and of course it let's the judge know you are better than them no matter what they are hurling your way.

  6. Yeah, it sounds like you did great. The client's mom had every reason to be proud of you. It's a tough job, and you seem to me like a conscientious and amazing lawyer. You go girl!

  7. Sorry to hear you had a crappy day. I can sympathize. I don't currently handle criminal cases, but I was in a defense clinic handling misdemeanors in law school. I had a client who shoved/struck a teacher who she felt had been making racist and other derogatory comments to her daughter. After she made a plea bargain, the judge sentenced her to the maximum and gave a lecture likening what she had done to rape and murder. And he directed his comments mostly to me.

    I held it together in the courtroom, but then I went outside and cried. I don't want to stereotype, but he was an old white guy, and he just did not get it. You deserve respect and tons of credit for what you do, and any judge who doesn't get that needs a refesher course in equal justice.

  8. Sorry you had to deal with a jerk-off judge. I've been thinking for a long time that we should have a revolving door between Judge, Prosecutor and Defender with each of us spending time in the other's shoes to help give a little perspective. Some people are out of touch. The difference is that I know I could do their jobs... I doubt they could do mine.

    Out of curiosity, what was the sentence your client received? I'll make it easy and list my all time worst...

    On a Plea - 34 years (Ugly ugly airtight death noticed case with witnesses and a confession)

    At trial - 45 years for 9 counts of trafficking in cocaine with 3 prior convictions for the same... but a non-violent offense with 8 to serve before he meets the parole board.

    At Trial - 25 years for a shooting with multiple witnesses, enhanced by a prior felony conviction. 20 years to meet the board.

    Maybe that makes you feel better??

  9. Eh, kind of. I didn't make a dent in any of those numbers, but it still felt like a lot to me.

    Just like the first time I took a year on a misdemeanor (to avoid a felony indictment). It wasn't a lot in the grand scheme of things, but it was tough for me.

    I know someone who retired from doing capital work, and she always says, "Don't feel bad... My last client got life times two and was damn happy to get it." It really is all in the perspective, I suppose.