Sunday, August 31, 2008

On Labor Day, Celebrating Our Hated Profession

From Dan Zak of the Washington Post. (Free sign in required to view entire article)

"It's Labor Day weekend, so we paused to think about work. Then we started thinking about people whose work attracts the suspicion, dismissal or loathing of the general public.
The auditor: pickpocketing our hard-earned money.
The used-car salesman: passive-aggressive liar with a glinting Rolex.
The criminal defense attorney: slimeball in a suit, standing up for nefarious creatures.
The ballpark umpire: blind, deaf, clearly on the other team's payroll.
The parking enforcement officer: For the love of God, $40 for going two minutes over the meter?

Prejudiced generalizations, surely. Auditors and umpires are merely convenient targets for our personal frustrations. Car salesmen and defense attorneys are stock villains in pop culture, not necessarily bad guys in real life. And without parking enforcement, our streets would be jammed with scofflaws' cars.

Instead of appreciating our work today, we're going to appreciate their work and the nonsense they have to put up with by virtue of their titles.

The Criminal Defense Lawyer

A cartoon framed in William Moffitt's Alexandria office shows 12 jurors acquitting Sami al-Arian, the Florida professor accused of supporting Palestinian terrorists in 2005. The title of the cartoon is "The Real Patriot Act." Moffitt was al-Arian's attorney, perhaps his most recent visible assignment.

Moffitt, 59, grew up in New York, went to law school at American University, was hired as a clerk at the first racially integrated law firm in Northern Virginia in the early '70s and now runs his own practice. His client list has ranged from the high profile (controversial political activist Lyndon LaRouche Jr.) to the local (a clinically insane man who went on a stabbing spree in Alexandria). Moffitt, a Reston resident, takes pride in often being the lone person to stand up for the accused in the face of a powerful government and judgmental public.

Why did you become a criminal defense lawyer?
My mother raised me on "Perry Mason." Seven-thirty in New York every Saturday night. I always wanted to be a criminal defense lawyer. For some reason that always attracted me. You know, defending people against the power of the state is a very, very heady experience.

Does hostility toward a client ever turn into hostility toward you?
It sometimes does. Not always. I've seldom had a case where people were particularly angry at me. We got some pretty angry stuff on e-mails when we were doing Sami's case.

Like what?
"How could you represent this guy?" "He's a known terrorist." "How could you do that?"

How did you respond?
Most of my defense was that he was exercising his First Amendment rights. I wasn't calling anybody names; I wasn't calling the U.S. government crooked or anything like that. I was essentially raising a defense that people could understand. . . . We took the position -- as defense attorneys often do -- that we're educating people. One of the greatest things about what I do is my opportunity to use the courtroom as a place to educate people about things they don't really know about.

What's the worst part of the job?
The frustrating part about the system is that it isn't always right or always fair. Innocent people are sometimes convicted. Guilty people sometimes walk away. And you have to adjust to the notion that you are a participant in an imperfect system.

Is there anything you want the general public to know about your field?
Most of the people who are involved in the practice of criminal law are involved because they love people. The idea is that in order to get justice in an imperfect system, someone has to fight for it. And that's what thousands of people are doing every day -- many of them court-appointed, underpaid, overworked and what have you. But their dedication to the system of justice is what ought to be exalted, not the fact they represent a particular individual who may or may not be accused of something very serious or difficult to understand.

Brian Tannebaum is a criminal defense attorney in Miami, Florida practicing in state and federal court. To learn more about Brian and his firm, Tannebaum Weiss, please visit