What's So Special About You?

I recently talked to an older white man who had been arrested for DUI. He was not a client of mine, but he knew I was a lawyer and he wanted to vent to me, so I let him.

He shared that the police hadn't been fair to him, that he had tried to tell them that he wasn't drunk, that the handcuffs were too tight, that he wanted to call his wife, and the police officers had not listened to him, had refused to listen to him, had persisted in arrested him and in keeping him cuffed tightly.

"A few weeks ago," he continued, "when I heard about all of these people protesting the police, I thought they should just shut up and respect the police. But, now, I kind of see where they're coming from me. If the police treated me like this, I can believe how the police could treat them even worse."
I'm so torn about this. I've been thinking about it for days.

On one hand, of course I am sorry that this man went through this, I am sorry when anyone suffers injustice. On the other hand, maybe there is a small part of me that is glad that one more person's eyes are opened to the injustice that others face.

As I said, part of me feels bad for what this man faced. But another, smaller part of me felt like saying, "Sir, part of having compassion for your fellow man, is being able to put yourself in his shoes without ever walking a mile in them. I've never been arrested and yet I have compassion for people who suffer abuse. Why did you not believe it until it happened to you?"

What do you think? Am I wrong? Should I just be glad he sees the light now, and sorry that this happened to him?  Am I judging him too harshly?

Things They Should Teach In Law School

A big part of my job is making up excuses. Especially about why my clients or my witnesses are late. When I was in the big city, I relied more on train trouble. In the suburbs, "He's just parking" is my new go-to. Everyone is always "just parking." Sometimes for hours or days.

But these are the things I think they should teach public defenders in law school.  That, and copier repair. 

B as in Blonde...

My client left a message for me and spelled her name in the cutest way. I can't help but think that it took her some time to come up with it. I don't want to give up her name obviously but let's just say her last name was Grubs.  Her message said "G as in Glitter, R as in Rainbows, U as in Unicorns, B as in Butterflies, S as in Stars." It was great! So cheerful... and I'll certainly remember to call her back! Oh, I'd better go do that!

Grumpy Justice

Step One: Identify whether you are a "loud talker."

Step Two: Learn to shut your office door, especially when you are on personal calls.

Seriously, you are all the way down the hall and I can't concentrate.

Gee, Thanks.

Judge, to my client, as part of the plea colloquy: And are you satisfied with the representation you have received from your lawyer?

Asshole client, who has wasted a ton of my time being an asshole client:  Well, I mean, I have some critiques to offer her...

Running Wild

One of the interesting things about working in a new court is learning the new lingo.  You say continuance, I say adjournment. You say FTA, I say bench warrant.

But today I heard my new favorite localism. My client was telling me about what happened with his cases in another county. "Judge gave me thirty days running wild."

(Note there is no article "the" here, always just "judge" instead of "the judge," "prosecutor" instead of "the prosecutor."  If I want to assimilate, I'll have to give up the "the.")

Anyway, where was I?  Oh, I followed up with, "30 days on each case? You had three cases there."

My client said, "Yeah, running wild."

It was then that I started to realize that maybe "running wild" was supposed to mean something, not just be some kind of exclamation.

"Running wild?" I asked.

"Yeah, running wild. You know, like I had to do all that time running wild."

I was so confused. How could you be running wild and doing time? If you're in jail, you're not running wild, right?

The client could sense my confusion because he then explained, "You know, 30 days then 30 days then 30 days so I had to do 90 days. Running wild."

"Oh...  consecutive?" I asked.

Blank stare.

"Not concurrent?"


"Back to back?"

"Yeah, that's what I said. Running wild."

To-may-to, to-mah-to, consecutive, running wild, let's call the whole thing off.

Meeting the Best People

One thing I really like is meeting other public defenders.  As my clinic teacher used to say, "Public defenders are the best people in the world."

If not the "best," they're at least usually like-minded.  And in a world where our chosen profession is often misunderstood, that is no small thing.

If you are a public defender having some doubts, or experiencing "burn out," I would suggest going to a PD conference, maybe even in another state, and making some new friends.  It helps to realize there are people going through the same (or worse) challenges, and people you can swap war stories with - who haven't already heard all your best ones.  It's like a little spa retreat for the professional mind.

I'm not going to go as far as to say that professional development can be a form of self-care, but at least the socializing aspect can be a form of... career-care? Is there a better term for it than that?

And, never say never, some day you might be looking for a new job and those connections you made might really pay off.

Self-Care for Public Defenders

Self-care is a social worker and therapist idea, basically, wherein the practitioner makes an effort to care for himself and his own mental wellbeing as a way of staying healthy and being able to persevere, successfully, in the field. In the social work field, it is taught as a "survival skill," as the University of Buffalo Social Work school noted on its website Self-Care Starter Kit, which has a lot of great resources for social work students and practitioners.

When I started out as a public defender, many years ago, I was surprised how little attention was paid to the attorneys' well-being. I distinctly remember sitting through the first-day training on health benefits, and when we got to the part about mental health, the only coverage was for in-patient mental health treatment and in-patient drug and alcohol treatment. Even then, not having experienced it, I thought, "Wouldn't this be a profession where it'd be nice to talk to a therapist or something once in a while?"

But what I learned is that, at least in the offices I've worked in, self-care was largely ignored. All the therapy you needed was in a pint at the pub with colleagues. And, don't get me wrong, I think collegiality is important, but maybe that's how we ended up as the profession with the highest alcoholism rates? (Attorneys in general, not public defenders. I've never seen stats on alcoholism among different legal fields.)

In the offices where I've practiced, to talk about being "burnt out" was to be seen as someone who couldn't handle the job, someone who wasn't a "true believer." To struggle with how to avoid taking our clients' issues home was to be seen as naive, a rookie lawyer who didn't "get it yet."

I bring all this up because, after a lot of consideration, I have decided to reenter the world of public defense. But this time, I want to do it differently.

I'm not quite sure yet how to do it, but I want to be more cognizant of my own needs this time. I want to engage in more self-care. A google search for self-care turns up tons of information for therapists and social workers. A google search for self-care and public defense turns up articles about self-representation and self-defense. My plan is to read up on self-care and see how it can be adapted to public defense (because, after all, social worker can be one of the hats a public defender wears).  One thing that I'm thinking is to research things like yoga classes and other things that will be healthy and relaxing for me and, from day one at my new office, to start by saying something like, "On Wednesdays, I have to leave by 5 p.m., I have a standing appointment." I know emergencies will come up, and that it won't always be realistic to leave early, but if it happens more often than not, I'd be happy.

Besides that... I'm not sure yet. If there's anyone out there still reading this (besides the comment spam bots), I'd like to hear from you. How do you engage in self-care?