Thursday, December 31, 2009

difficulties ahead

I just published a draft post below that I wrote about a month ago about how I am trying to leave my job as a public defender. I hadn't decided to post it until today. I wrote it thinking that I would get things off my chest and feel better. Then, I thought I would feel better and not need to post it.

I was wrong.

I still feel that way. Taking stock of my life on the traditional day that we do so in this country (and around the world), I still want a new job. A few years ago, on New Year's Eve, I spent the evening with 2 girlfriends being snowed in in one of the smallest towns in the country. So small that we went out to the town green at midnight with all our dogs, wished the town a happy new year each with our own bottle of champagne, and no one else was around. I was so peaceful . . . and snowy. It was beautiful.

My favorite part of the evening, however, was when we reflected on the past year month by month. A bit arbitrary to split things by month, but it was mostly about themes and larger events. I was able to remember what I was going through each month and see whether I'd learned anything from the experience (sometimes yes, sometimes no).

Tonight, I wanted to renew that tradition with myself, but I can't remember anything from the past year except:
1) I've worked every vacation I've tried to take this year.
2) I've worked to the point where all my hobbies have faded.
3) I can see nothing but stress.
4) I can't watch movies that are sadder than Disney movies anymore because I get too much "real" life in my career.

This is not how I envisioned my life. When I mentioned my decision to leave criminal defense work to a good friend, he couldn't have been happier for me. I've known this person for a decade, and he commented that he has never seen me more miserable than I have been in the past year. It's too bad he didn't have a crystal ball before I took a job at the public defender's so he could warn me. Would I have listened? Probably not, I suppose.

So, what can I learn from this? I don't really know yet. I do know that I don't want to swear off criminal work entirely, but I am ready for a new challenge.

If I could just find some way to get over the terrible legal job market . . .


I recently decided that I cannot continue to be a public defender. The job is not a legal one, but one designed more for social work--social work without any resources to actually help people. I cannot tell you then number of times I wake up disappointed that I have to live through another day, being over-worked and accomplishing nothing. I feel frustrated and angry at myself that I can't do this job. I really wanted to do this and do it well. But I won't do it at the expense of the rest of my life.

Yes, I could change the way I practice. I could cut most of the social work out of what I do. I could attempt to humanize my clients less with the prosecutors and judges. I could deal strictly with legal issues that come up in my cases. I've reflected on that and determined that this would not make things any better. I've done the social work aspect of this job. I've seen the good things that can come from it, like getting a no-time misdemeanor plea out of a felony charge that comes with a minimum sentence of a year in jail. If things like that are possible, shouldn't I attempt to do that for all my clients? If I don't, am I not partially playing judge? Yes, this client deserves my time and attention, but that one over there doesn't. I am so far from being able to do that. One person should not be more deserving of my time than another.

I've heard that over time you begin to see which cases really deserve your time and attention and which ones don't. But I've had cases that looked impossible and pointless that turned out to be different than they first appeared because I did the extra social work. I never expect to be good enough to develop any e.s.p in this area.

So there it is. I haven't resigned yet, but I dream about it every day. Every day I make new contacts and work towards my next job.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

*danger ahead*

Be afraid asserting constitutional rights. Be very afraid.

Today, I was yelled at by a judge for asserting my client's right to confront witnesses guaranteed by both the state and federal constitutions. There was an emergency hearing today to take my client away from his family and send him to jail two days before Christmas. The State had no witnesses to back up its charges. I was just doing my job putting things on the record (the judge only glared at me and took no notes as I made my arguments, so I realized I was speaking only for the record). I couldn't even get through my sentence before the Judge told me I was being disingenuous and blamed the lack of State's witness on me. Somehow it was my fault that the witness couldn't come to the emergency hearing which had practically no advance notice.

It's too bad I didn't learn my lesson and plan to continue to assert my client's rights in this judge's courtroom in the future.

It's also too bad that I had to cry with a boy and his family split right before the holidays.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

i wish i was making this up

This morning I was watching video arraignments while waiting for my client's case to be called. The second individual to be arraigned was warmly greeted by the judge: "It's so nice to see you again, Mr. X. Wasn't our last arraignment together just last Thurs or Fri?" So, I thought I would listen as the arraignment promised to be interesting.

I was not disappointed.

The charge was Receiving Stolen Property. The State asked for cash bail in an amount I knew the defendant would not be able to post, relying on the fact that Mr. X committed the alleged offense while on bail for a Possession of a Controlled Drug charge from last week. (The judge was correct; she had just seen him. Last Friday, actually.) Presented with this request, the judge took a moment to read the Gerstein affidavit. Her response? "Attorney? Is this affidavit for real?"

The following unfolded to reveal the story behind the charge:

An officer was on patrol, walking up the street, when he was confronted by an individual wishing to report a crime. It seems that the individual had given Mr. X some money (less than $100) and asked him to purchase some drugs for him. Mr. X had taken the money, and the individual thought Mr. X would procure the drugs for him. Unfortunately, Mr. X failed to deliver, and the individual--drugless--went to the first officer he saw to report his status as a victim.

The officer, doing his best to uphold the law, searched Mr. X and found a sum of money less than what the victim stated he gave him but decided to arrest him anyway.

The State, knowing they would have a hard time proving a theft charge, charged Mr. X with Receiving Stolen Property.

What happened with the "victim's" confession to attempting to purchase drugs?

Absolutely nothing.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

the new plan

I have been working very hard to incorporate my new lesson learned (about not being a counselor). It has been freeing and feels pretty gosh darn good to focus on what my actual job is. I have been able to get so much more done. For example, I received a call from a client's mother the other day. She called to talk because she was worried that her son seemed pretty depressed about his case. In the past, I would've returned that call. We wouldn't have talked about anything closely related to my job. It would have taken an hour to get her off the phone. Under my new rules, I haven't called the mother back and allowed her to dump her worries on me--because I am not her counselor. Instead, I used that time to keep new charges from being filed against this client. Emotional mess avoided. Job objectives completed. What a wonderful thing.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

on being a public defender and not a counselor

I've often told people that if I hadn't become an attorney, I would have become a counselor. It seems that while having become an attorney, I never really gave up on being a counselor either. I have around 70 cases currently open, and I've been trying to be more than a counselor-at-law for my clients. This has been problematic. I do not have the time, energy, or emotional capacity to help my clients deal with their emotional problems along with their legal ones. But there I was, chugging away, trying to do both jobs even though I was only appointed by the courts for one. Investing myself emotionally into the outcome of every case is no way to practice law or to live I found out. I can't do it anymore. And I won't. So there.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

growing pains

Over the last couple months, I have been really struggling with aspects of my job and career. Perhaps the most difficult to come to terms with was realizing that the institution for which I work is (significantly) less than perfect. Recently, I have seen my "firm" act very unprofessional more than once--within the company and dealing with the larger legal community. This was disastrous to me because when I started my job, I attached my career and identity as a lawyer with my firm. I was very happy to be working there and willing to support all its ideals. I was so excited when I received the job offer that I turned down everything else.

It all came crashing down around the end of February, making me start to look for other work. Last weekend, though, I made the decision not to leave my firm. While my firm may not be perfect, I love doing criminal defense work for people who really need my help, and I can't do that anywhere at at the present time. I did, however, make some important promises to myself. I will no longer identify myself as "someone who works for [my firm]." I am my own lawyer. I am going to treat my life as a lawyer as MY career, not something that I'm giving to my firm. They can't have it, because they don't deserve it. It is also not the way I should manage my career if I want it to be life-long and fulfilling.

After I made that decision last weekend, I have started enjoying my job again. I do love being a public defender.

Ironically, while I was exploring my options, I received an offer--unsolicited--from a prosecutor in my county to work with him prosecuting for a local police department.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

my first trial

and first Not Guilty.

I am so glad my first trial is out of the way. I had my first client that insisted on a trial and did not cave minutes before the trial was supposed to start and plea out. Not that I think less of people who take a deal. It is waaaay less stressful to take a deal than have a full blown trial. And, let's face it, more often than not the prosecution can prove that some crime happened. (Ever really looked through your state's penal code? More things than you think are defined as criminal behavior by the state legislature. Not to mention that the presumption of innocence is all but dead.) And when the prosecution offers to continue the case and then dismiss it if you haven't committed any other crimes during a specified period of time, it places all control into your hands. Don't commit a crime; don't get convicted with the present charge. Not a bad thing to consider.

Anyway, this client was willing to take the chance of conviction for a chance to walk out of the courthouse "a winner" (his words). I was happy to oblige. After a little over an hour, and the judge sustaining all the prosecution's objections, I was shocked to hear the words "not guilty." And so was the prosecutor.

Not a bad way to start the week.