Wednesday, January 24, 2007

burnout

It's that time again.  The time when I don't want to get out of bed, I can't stand to listen to my clients tell me one more bullshit story, I eat cheese and drink red wine like an addict consumes heroin, I won't answer phone calls because I don't have anything nice to say, and I'm pretty sure I haven't smiled in over a month.  If I did, it was fake.
 
I get along well with an attorney in my office who has an MSW (masters in social work) and since my undergrad degree is in social work, we talk about feelings, and debriefing, and our emotional investment in our jobs, etc.  Things that attorneys don't ever talk about, and that criminal defense attorneys should probably talk more about.  Today she told me two things that are very true. 
1. I expect too much from my clients. 
2. Good doctor, bad patient.  I can give help, and spend all of my time giving help to others, but you can't make me take help and I absolutely won't take it, damnit.
 
My clients, I think, have defeated me.  I have one client who was trying to snow me with some ridiculous story about why he was innocent, and I let him get about halfway through it before I told him it was disingenuous to try to claim innocence if he already signed a confession.  Why lie to your lawyer?  Why?  You spill your guts to the cops IN A HEARTBEAT.  And I'm not the one who beats you and arrests you and harasses you and instigates you with lewd, disgusting comments about what I'd do to your mother / daughter / sister.  If you tell me what happened, at least I know where the best defense will be.  If you try to come up with some alternate reality, then you don't have much of a defense, because you're the only person in the world who's singing that tune.  All the witnesses, the police officer, the DNA evidence, the medical records - those will flush you out.  The signed confession?  Yeah... you say it's not a confession because it only said that you were sorry, that you'd been arrested for it before, and that you might have done it this time but you'll never do it again... that, my friend, is a confession.  Don't let the police trick you into thinking you were making a "statement" or that they'd "put in a good word" for ya.  They were lying.  Because they want you in jail.  I want you out of jail.  Making up some fantasy world is not going to help that happen. 
 
I had one client who spent 10 minutes telling me what happened, that he hit the guy because the guy gave him a nasty look, so of course he was going to engage in a high speed car chase, that's doesn't make the resulting car accident his fault, and he concluded with, "That's why I'm innocent."  His story pretty much made out every element of the crime, and when he asked, "So how does my case look?" and I answered honestly, I immediately regretted not lying to him.  He insulted my legal abilities, yadda yadda, telling me that he's on his own, because people like me don't like to fight cases, yadda yadda, I'm a crock of shit, etc. 
 
Sending me on a wild goose chase all over this state and the neighboring states looking for witnesses who will tell me how much you're a liar will not help your case.
 
Assuring me repeatedly that you know all these people who were witnesses and will corroborate your story and you can get me their info, only to later tell my investigator that you don't know any of those people because they were just bystanders, and actually there really was only one, and he wasn't there when it happened, will not help you win your case.
 
So today, I did a hearing with a client claiming actual innocence, and after hearing the cop testify, I pretty much threw in the towel, mentally.  The judge even yelled at me for litigating a case that was so clearly a loser.  When I told the judge that it is not my decision whether to take a plea or go to trial, he yelled, "Well it's someone's decision!"  Yeah.  Still not mine though.  After the hearing, I spoke quite harshly with my client, and I regret that, because it's not my place to be angry.  It's my place to give legal advice and perform legal functions.  I have to stop expecting so much from my clients, it's true.  I have to stop expecting that they won't be able to stay out of jail, that they'll call me when they say they will, that they'll come to the office when they say they will, that they will see how hard I work for them, that they understand that it is not in my power to dismiss cases, that fighting cases means coming back to court, over and over again, regardless of whether you are in jail or not. 
 
I don't think that's necessarily what the attorney meant when she said I expect too much from clients, but to some extent it's true.  I have to expect that my clients will not trust me.  I have to expect that my clients, when frustrated with bullshit cases, will take their frustration out on me, because I am the one advocate they have in the system.  I have to expect that the truth is always somewhere in between. 
 
I had a former client stop me on my way into court.  He's a teenager and was on his way out of the courthouse.  He said, 'Hey!  I remember you!  You defended me once!  I recognize your face.'  I didn't recognize him, so I asked his name, and his name rang a bell, but I couldn't remember his case.  I greeted him, asked him how he was doing, and teasingly asked him how he ended up back in court?  He assured me he was staying out of trouble, he just came back to support a friend.  The court officers shooed us out of the doorway, so we parted ways, but something about that interaction made me feel good.  Today, I covered a case for a coworker, and the client thanked me for fighting so hard for him.  I really was just doing my job.  I didn't do anything over and above the call of duty.  I made arguments that I believed had legal merit, the judge disagreed, I made my record, made my demands, cited my law, and went on my way.  He thanked me for fighting so hard for him.  I thanked him for being so kind, and then wondered to myself how it is that the people who receive the bulk of my time and energy would never even know it, and would never care even if they did.

3 comments:

ambimb said...

I'm sorry to hear about your dissatisfaction and disillusionment, but also glad to hear that you can still recognize some good moments in your days. Isn't it funny how much nicer "defendants" can be to you when you're not their lawyer? I've noticed this a lot at jail -- I go to see my people and other people are always asking for help and being really nice, etc. I think they're always thinking that someone else might be The One who shits magic and can get them out tomorrow w/no fines or probation or anything. Hope springs eternal.

But about your frustration w/your clients lying to you, etc, I wish I could offer something more helpful. All I can say is I know you're not alone. There are people in my office who don't get disappointed in their clients, they get *angry* and actually sort of try to punish their clients in ways I won't go into. If you start doing that, maybe it's time for a break. If you're just hoping that maybe next time your clients will be straight w/you and let you do your job as best you can, well, that's the job, right? We are Freedom Fighters Fueled by Hope. (Meaning, w/regard to hope, we have a lot in common w/our clients.) There's a lot of cognitive dissonance involved, but when you get that case dismissed or hear that "not guilty" verdict, it's all worth it, isn't it?

Mariam said...

I completely understand where you are coming from. I get very frustrated when I hear the same excuses over and over again. And I have to take a deep breath and start again. I was very close to burn out a month ago after a rash of particularly difficult clients (one guy literally had over 20 felony convictions and expected probation). But, then something good happens and you feel the flame grow inside again. Keep it up, you're definitely an asset to your clients, whether they realize it or not :)

Melissa said...

It's kind of nice (and scary) to know that I'm not the only one that feels the way that you do. I
feel the burnout too and I want to get my flame back...