Monday, October 30, 2006

on being a public defender: brinkmanship

I spend most of my day, every day, approximately half a second away from tackling a DA, screaming "Who's the tough guy now?  Huh?  How do you like that?  Still a tough guy with my knee pinning your chest cavity to the floor??" 
On paper?  Today was a good day.  In reality?  I spent every single moment seething.  Annoyance, frustration, intolerance was just seeping out of my pores. 
I spend a lot of days teetering on the brink of destruction.  It's not that the DAs always give rise to the most frustrating parts of the day.  Then there are the judges, the corrections officers, other attorneys, and a myriad of people who, when confronted with a livid WOTL who is desperately trying not to tackle and pin, pretend like it's not their job to help me.  It's always someone else's fault.  Mmmm, sorry I can't lower that offer.  Boss won't let me.  Sorry I can't lower that bail.  Sorry I can't suppress that evidence.  Sorry I can't help but call your client demeaning names in a way that I think makes me look hilarious / authoritative. 
Ok, so really, it's not even dealing with difficult individuals that makes this job hard. Working with people is the easy part.  Living with yourself is the hard part. The problem with being a public defender is that when you get a good result, you think it's inevitable.  Like, ok, yeah, that worked out well, but that's because it SHOULD have.  That's what was just, that was the right thing to do under the circumstances.  But when things go poorly, it's your fault or your responsibility to fix it.  And that's where the stress comes in.  How am I supposed to fix this?  How do I get this guy out of jail now that he's in on a crazy amount of bail?  How do I keep my client out of jail after he absconded from his mandated jail-alternative program?  How can I prevent my clients' lives from being permanently destroyed today? 
So it's not really the DAs, or the judges, or the officers.  It's really the burden of knowing that YOU HAVE TO FIX IT, and knowing that you probably won't be able to.  It's the burden of going to sleep with that client on your mind, trying to figure any way out, and waking up the next morning as though you never slept or left the office, still trying to figure out how to make it better.  It's the burden of seeing that flashing light on the phone, or the letters in the mailbox, or the email icon waiting to be answered, and feeling like you can't possibly bear to listen to the messages or read the mail because you just don't have the answers.
And when these things happen in a single day, every day, one day after the next, it's remarkable that I have yet to snap with a swift reactive tackle / throttle / pin, screaming "TELL ME I'M PRETTY!"  But a girl can dream.


Guy Barry said...

Wow how do you live feeling like that all the time?

BJ said...

First of all: You're pretty! (Where's Fresh Pepper when you need him?) :)

But mostly: I think it's important to keep in mind that it's not up to you only to "fix it" - you're working in/against a system that often enough doesn't leave you any room for doing much good for your client. So, if you do all you can, use whatever room left to you, to achieve the best result for your client, that already makes you a good public defender.
And the fact that you worry (or better: care) so much about this probably makes you a *great* public defender.

Eugenics PI said...

Whenever you feel this way, you could try looking in the mirror while holding up a picture of Nancy Grace. Now compare the two reflections.

See how beautiful you are?

As to trying to fix everything, well, you can't, of course. Compare the two reflections in the mirror again and ask, "Who is trying to respect the Bill of Rights, me or Nancy Grace?"

Grace would drown the Bill of Rights. If you are only holding them above water and breathing a little life into them, you are doing all the fixing anyone could ask for.

See how beautiful you are?

Anonymous said...

Woman of the Law,

You impress me substantially. I'm currently considering going to Law School (169 LSAT but 2.91 LSDAS UGPA, so might not be accepted anywhere), and I want you to know that you are precisely the kind of attorney I want to be.

It sounds like you're outnumbered, outgunned, and without backup, and yet you're still in there every day.

I respect your honesty about how hard it is, and about how it makes you feel. When I was living in Japan a few years ago, an old man told me that bravery is not the absence of pain and fear, but to fight on in the presence of pain and fear.

If I were accused and needed a public defender, I'd want somebody with your guts. Hold the line.