Thursday, October 19, 2006

on being a public defender: killing me softly.

I'm struggling with the blogging lately.  I'm either too upset or too angry when I get home from work to write, or to write anything worth reading.  Or I'm too tired from being angry and upset to do anything more than zone out in front of the TV with a cup of tea.
Being a public defender is hard.  I never anticipated the toll this work would take.  I knew it was going to be difficult, and tiring, and demoralizing.  For a long time I was leaving work every day feeling unfulfilled, even bored.  It's not that I didn't have a lot of work to do, it's that I lost motivation for a little while somehow.  I felt like my day had become routine.  Go to court. Speak to clients.  Get yelled at by some of them. Take pleas on most of them.  Eat lunch.  Back to court or sit at desk and return phone calls.  Go home.  But then things got much better.  I rediscovered my zeal, my enjoyment, my reasons for making this my life's work.  However, there are other difficulties.
My supervisor and I don't get along.  I feared this would become a problem but tried very hard to keep in mind what compromises it would take on my part to ensure a smooth working relationship.  It's been a miserable failure.  About 2/3 of the time, we're ok; the other 1/3 of the time he makes me feel as though I'm a useless idiot.  I internalize it - the way he speaks to me, particularly in contrast to the way he speaks to the attorneys with whom he gets along well; I internalize how he says things ("I know you work hard" versus "I know you're a good attorney."  I will never hear the latter from him); I internalize his dismissiveness.  Today, I was recounting my single proudest moment thus far in my work as a public defender (nothing brilliant or innovative, just something that made me feel good) and when we got around to talking about the law of it, I made a comment about how incredibly sleazy the police were and he lit into me.  Like he has never lit into me before.  He screamed at me for about 15 seconds about how caselaw says otherwise, I always think I'm right but just because I don't agree with it doesn't mean it's the law, I should read up on my caselaw, I don't have to take his word for it since I clearly don't believe him.  I was completely dumbfounded.  All I could say on my way out of the office was, "I just wanted to tell you what happened, and how happy I am that things turned out the way they did."  I'm not sure what it was that triggered him.  I'm not sure if it was what I said, how I said it, or my failure to respond appropriately to something he said.  I can't figure it out.  What I do know is that it really put a damper on my proudest moment.  Things like this happen once or twice a month.  I spend two weeks avoiding him completely because I cannot even tolerate the way he makes me feel, and then just when I take a deep breath, straighten my shoulders, and try again, something happens that makes me recoil for another two weeks. 
Incidents like that just add to the already overwhelming stress that I'm a PD discussed some time ago.  Every day I'm afraid that I'm horrible at what I do.  Every day I have to fight off the sneaking suspicion that I cannot do this work the way it is supposed to be done, or that I look like an idiot, or that my clients / the judges / my supervisor have no confidence in my ability.  I'm blessed to have coworkers, court officers in courtrooms that I don't even practice in, private defense attorneys, and DAs come up to me and compliment me over the course of the year.  I would expect that would make me feel better.  But it's just the opposite.  When people say something unexpectedly complimentary, all I can do is smile uncomfortably and think, "But that's because you don't REALLY know how I am. If you really knew me as an attorney, you'd think I was a disgrace."
The anger and the anxiety and the sadness just build up inside until I randomly burst into tears.  I never know when it's going to happen or what exactly will trigger it, but I've been crying embarrassingly frequently.  At the bar after a few drinks, I cried uncontrollably for about half an hour.  Still not quite sure why.  I cry in my office at least once a week.  At least every other week, someone walks in on me sobbing.  I get so angry that at the end of the day I have to have several glasses of wine just to stop shaking.  My professional life leaves me so full of anger and frustration that it has decimated my personal life.  I can't leave work behind; I can't separate the resonating anger and sadness of work from my home, my friends, my weekends.
For these reasons and many others, this job has sucked the soul out of me.  And it's only been a year.
And yet, I can't imagine wanting to do anything else.
But let me take this little space right here to say, in regards to my proudest moment ever, with the biggest smile I can shine - I stuck it to The Man.  I stuck it to him good. 


Anonymous said...

You are not alone. Hang in there.

Anonymous said...

I don't feel like I have anything worthwhile to say or any useful advice or even a thought provoking question to ask that will prompt some epiphany in you. That sucks.

*hugs* I'm sorry it sucks right now.

Scoplaw said...

I'm really sorry to hear that you're having a stressful time. While I can't speak from experience, I do know that becoming a PD is a huge step, a transformative experience. It's going to be rough at times. If it wasn't - well, that would be kind of worrisome, wouldn't it?

Sounds like your boss needs to switch to decaf. *He's* obviously not discharging his responsibilities in a way that actually helps and empowers the people he's supposed to mentor. And *that's* not your fault. In any way.

I'm glad you want to stay with Defending, even with the extra burdens. I mean, you help people you don't know. (I know that from personal experience.) How many humans get to say that? Damn few.

I hope things get better for you.

Sanchovilla said...

But let me take this little space right here to say, in regards to my proudest moment ever, with the biggest smile I can shine - I stuck it to The Man. I stuck it to him good.

I love this last paragraph! Hopefully one day, we get to hear about it.

Ya, I'm not an attorney so I can't say I completely understand what you're going through but I have had friends in your position.

Enjoy and savor these times and case results! Don't let some a**wipe supervisor who may or may not have issues with women (or just you) send your life into a tailspin. Stick with it chick! I'd give you a hug too if I could...well, at least buy you a few shots of tequila to warm the tummy.

WomanoftheLaw said...

Hey Sancho, thanks for mentioning that last line. That's originally what I wanted to post about, but somehow things just made a sharp u-turn as I started typing and I just went with it.

But despite all that depressing stuff I wrote, I was really really psyched about that one issue. I'll write about it eventually. But thanks again for picking up on it.

And thank you to everyone else for taking a moment to be my cheerleaders!

Anonymous said...

I think there are lots of styles of lawyering, and each one can work well. That your boss doesn't like your style doesn't make you a bad lawyer. I'm sure you make mistakes, but that doesn't make you a bad laywer either. When you look at yourself and imagine how much better you can be, that shows the drive that combines with experience to make a lawyer great. If it doesn't get better, switching to a different PD office for a fresh start might be smart. And be careful medicating with booze. Talk to someone. Maybe a professional. It'll make you feel better.

123txpublicdefender123 said...

You know, there are so many lawyers out there who would never say anything remotely like what you've said here because they just don't care. You so very obviously care, and that means so much. Trust me, we have all been where you are now. Maybe not the exact cirumcstances, but we've been there. And when you find a way to push through it, you will come out stronger on the other side. It took me moving half way across the country to do it, myself, but I've never felt better about what I'm doing. I am still nagged by those thoughts of "These people wouldn't be telling me what a good job I was doing if they really knew what kind of job I was doing," but that only pushes me to keep doing better.

In the meantime, a cyber hug from me to you. And, a big congrats on sticking it to the Man, who was totally asking for it!

Anonymous said...

Couple of days late on this one - just found your blog.

I am so right with you on those feelings and experiences - has happened to me too many times to think about, especially the self-doubt, internalizing comments and overanalyzing them. Went through it at last job, now going through it on my own because I've started my own practice.

Hang in there!

Eugenics PI said...

Criminal defense lawyers are the last battle line against a fascist totalitarian state. Without you and those like you, we would become no better than those countries we historically condemn.

A little suggestion from a nobody who cares because you care: rather than crying alone with only your drink for company, invite your boss to have drink. Tell him what you told us. Tell him you want guidance, not ridicule. Tell him you're not going to take it anymore. Tell him to either fire you or shut the f**k up. Pay for the drinks, tell him you expect more from him, and walk out proudly.

A.L.B.indigent defense attorney in the South said...


I read what you wrote - actually one of my best friends in the entire world (we met on the 1st day of law school and now work in the same Public Defender Office) sent it to me.

I am on clonzapem and Effexor XR and have been giving myself extra Effexor to get through the day. I feel like I'm failing clients because I haven't gotten to visit them as much as I feel I should. I feel the judges think I should do better (I've only been out 2 years.)

I have had a screaming boss but I think he realized that the screaming became intolerable and he hasn't screamed in about 1 year with me. I didn't handle it as well as you. I cried.

Of course, on tough cases - even when it's a good plea deal - but you hate to see a kid go to prison (like a 17 year old, for instance), I've had to close my office door and just cry - at what they'll face, the wasted potential, the injustices in this world, and that the child never really had a chance. That how is it justice to punish the child when the absentee, drug addicted 'parents' aren't made to share the sentence with her?

I know so much about what you're saying with the zoning out and losing the zeal. I realized I don't know who I am anymore without reference to the job and that I've sacrificed time with family and friends and I have no hobbies anymore. My husband doesn't want to have a child with me because all I do is work.

I have no idea what the answer is except to say you really, really aren't alone.

Anonymous said...

Your boss is a bully and getting off on your reaction. He IS "the man". Don't buy this guy a drink. And don't share with the guy, good or bad, about your life or your feelings. Stay away from him and treat the relationship as a strictly business proposition. You are too emotionally hooked into his approval. He's not your dad or your friend or he wouldn't treat you like that. Do your job and pat yourself on the back. Your own opinion is the only one you need. And you are doing a great job in a very difficult field. Many bullies are narcissists. Read for perspective and keep up the good work!