Something's been happening lately. Questions have been swirling around my head about my role as a criminal defense lawyer.
I started as a public defender, my mornings all the same - rows of mostly men, in jumpsuits green or orange or hopefully not red, walking amongst the sounds of chains entering the courtroom and sitting in the jury box. They would sit, some would yawn, some would look around for that family member who "said they were coming." Some would indicate in a feeble attempt to raise a hand that there was urgency in speaking to me. They either had a question, a note with case citations, or just wanted to know, "am I going home today?" Some would wait until the judge arrived to announce that they wanted another lawyer, again.
Some days I knew what case or cases were going to trial, other days I would be surprised. This client didn't want probation even though he was facing 30 years, and that client found a witness named "shorty," or "pooh-boy" or "I don't know his name but here's his friends beeper number."
I tried the cases, I pled the clients guilty, I argued motions, I sought continuances to try and find a hole, or a prosecutor in a merciful mood.
Then I got bored, so I left. Yes, there was "more money" in private practice, more clients that weren't 3-time losers, more clients who had professional licenses and ways of paying legal fees.
After some time, I was lucky enough to be able to refer out cases I didn't want - cases that were good for a young lawyer starting out, cases that included clients who would suck the life blood out of me and my desire to enjoy my wife and kids.
And if I ever get to the point where I don't have to work anymore, I may consider going back to that life of being a public defender. I loved it, I just became bored and wanted to handle other types of criminal cases, do federal work, and have the luxury not to have 150 cases.
But lately I walk into a courtroom. I stand in the well and I look at that same jury box, with (some of) those same inmates.
I think they look at me differently these days. maybe its the suit, maybe it's the one file in my hands, maybe it's the way the judge greets me as opposed to "go talk to your client," or "have you made these plea offers yet?"
I think they know I'm not a public defender, and think (wrongfully) that my entrance into their case would be their ticket out of the system. I look at their tired eyes, their agitated faces, and I wonder if they think I'm some big shot private lawyer who has no use for them, or if they wish they could gather up some money to have a lawyer like me. A private lawyer. A "real" lawyer as they mistakenly think.
I don't feel guilty that most of my clients are first time offenders, and that most have a suit like mine, or can get one to wear to court. I don't think I've done something wrong by being a private practitioner. I'm not apologetic for my career.
But I look at these inmates, and I think back to a time when my life was dedicated to them, and only them. Sure, I know I could take court appointments. I take court appointments in federal court where the respect for appointed lawyers exists. In state court, it used to be easy to take an appointed case. Now it's better to do a case pro-bono in state court than deal with trying to get paid.
Dealing with incarcerated clients is a world apart from those that come in and say "I just can't go to jail," in a way that they think they are the first client to make that statement. Incarcerated clients with prior convictions are a bit more realistic (not all) about their situation and are sitting across from maybe the only person in their life who has tried to do anything for them in recent time, or ever.
We criminal defense lawyers know too well about the poor client we were appointed to represent who gets convicted and sent to prison that says "thank you for fighting for me," and the private client who paid a fee, had his case dismissed, and wonders out loud why they ever needed a lawyer.
What I write about here is not something I'm "struggling" with, or something that is causing me to re-think my practice. I do plenty of pro-bono work. I give plenty of free advice.
I think I am just reaching the point in my career where I'm starting to think about my "core," and how I can spend a bit more time there.
Brian Tannebaum is a criminal defense lawyer in Miami, Florida practicing in state and federal court, and the author of The Truth About Hiring A Criminal Defense Lawyer. Post to Twitter
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