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Criminal defense is all about clients

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My work is never dull. Criminal defense, for me, is blissful battle on the side of the angels, no matter how rough and tumble the battles get. It is a constant opportunity for me to hone being calm in the eye of the storm.

The extra icing on the cake are my many fascinating clients, including accomplished musicians and others involved with the creative arts, writers, spiritual practitioners, and others living life to the fullest. Sometimes equally fascinating are my clients living in obscurity who want nothing more than to escape the spotlight of court and to return to obscurity. Many are alleged to have committed crimes because of the sorry state of the law that criminalizes driving after drinking a moderate amount of beer or for having a personal amount of marijuana. Being branded a criminal or convicted of a crime does not automatically make one a criminal.

In many respects, a client’s criminal case is a freeze frame out of million of other actions in their lives, an incident played over and over again starting from the arrest, to case preparation with me, to all court appearances, to the final conclusion of the case, and sometimes, sadly, involving adverse collateral consequences for careers, security clearances and immigration status. During it all, I learn my clients’ stories, not just of the incident, but of their lives, to help me know how to relate to them, to know their goals and fears in their cases, to present their defense as best I can, and to prepare them to talk in court, if needed, by testimony and, if there is a conviction, at sentencing.

A supervisor at the public defender’s office once warned me about fraternizing with clients when I happily told him that a client told me he was going to invite me to his extended family’s annual picnic. I once heard of a criminal defense lawyer who sometimes went to restaurants with his alleged underworld client. If someone is my client and I want to relate to them, do I not want to spend time with them in places and at times that are comfortable for them, and not just in my office and on the phone? When my clients are likable, why not enjoy each other’s company, whether that be at my office, in court, while taking a walk, or breaking bread together? Sure, I won’t fraternize with someone along the lines of a KKK grand wizard — although I certainly will want to know his story about his pain and fears that led him to such a horrendous destination — but I can find things in common with any client, whether or not I am fond of him or her overall.

Some of my clients have court in farflung places without a car to get there, whether because their license is suspended in relation to the case, or if they have just arrived in town by plane, train or bus. On occasion I drive with them to court if they will meet me at a subway stop or somewhere else near my home. Yes, it may take me away from being able to get confidential phone calls done during the drive, but the experience sometimes is priceless, as often is taking a walk with a client after success in court, including when in an interesting city that I do not visit often.

The ice needs to be melted, the barriers disintegrated, and the trust in me (and, consequently, the honesty of clients’ words) enhanced in my interaction with clients to get them to share with me everything I need to know to effectively defend them, even if that means their telling me secrets that they would not even share with their spouses.

And I share back. How can a client trust me to open up to me and to be honest with me if I do not open up with him or her? That sharing needs to be measured to the occasion, the client, and whether s/he wants to know much about me. The sharing can be as little as my observing that the only difference between me and a client charged with drunk driving is that the client got caught and I did not (although I recognized early on in law school not to risk driving after drinking). For those whose cases related to tremendous difficulties in their personal relationships (sometimes as a result of the criminal charges being aired), I am ready to share with them some of my own trials, tribulations and triumphs in my personal relationships. The triumphs are important for balancing out the trials, because people must not allow the trials to debilitate their ability to accomplish in the now and the future. A good measure of humor also often works well.

My clients are my teachers, as is everyone else. They see me in my raw state leading into the goal of polish in court, pursuing every means to get the best possible results for them. For clients who are more likely to testify at trial, many times over I have arranged trial workshops at my office on weekend mornings with fellow lawyers — and at times non-lawyers, too, which enhances the experience all the more — and sometimes professional psychodramatists. I let everyone know in advance not to bother coming unless they are ready to shed their personal armor and to share their vulnerabilities along with their power, and unless they are ready to hear some of my clients’ darkest and most painful experiences and fears. The pain that often is recounted or experienced at these gatherings ordinarily births extraordinary results.

As my teachers, my clients sometimes give their feedback on my performance. As wonderful as it is to hear a client like and appreciate what I do, I want to hear more than that when there is more to say, including a very perceptive and brilliant client who told me about the heavy aggression he felt in court that morning when I was fighting for his liberty pretrial, which we preserved other than an order for enhanced pretrial supervision. He was being polite in not naming me, but I knew he was pointing out that I was being very aggressive and that he likes more harmony when possible.

While I wish Justice Scalia had another line of work, although I like his good rulings that are unfortunately mixed in with many more distasteful written opinions, I understand his glee in his work by exclaiming something along the lines of “You mean I get paid to do this?” I share that enthusiasm about my work to this very day, and deeply appreciate my clients who make that path possible.