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Getting to the place where the client is, from the power of zero

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For me to truly help my client, I need to shed my lawyer’s cloak, keep and enhance my humanity, and find the place where my client is, so that we may move forward together.

A criminal defense colleague of mine told a great true story about visiting a potential client being held in jail pending trial, not having been able to pay his bond. Upon the man’s entering the visiting room where the lawyer waited, the man was hyperventilating and upsettedly spouting about his predicament, standing up the entire time. The lawyer knew that he was going to get nowhere with this man without first getting to the place where this man was. The man was standing, so the lawyer did, as well. The man was talking animatedly, so the lawyer did not speak lowkey. 

Eventually, the lawyer slowly started toning down his voice, words, and body language, and slowly started lowering himself more towards his chair. The man started following suit. About fifteen minutes or more later, the man and lawyer were finally ready to start talking about what they could do together for his case.

My standard client introduction letter advises my clients two simple things: Please tell me of any address or phone number changes, and any multi-day absences from town, and please only discuss your case with me. Particularly for my clients who obsess daily — and sometimes throughout the day — about their cases, how can they refrain from discussing their cases with others, unless they daily are speaking with me? Many of my clients, then, do talk with others about their cases, so I can only hope that they discuss their general concerns and fears, and not discuss what really happened in the incident, lest that information be shared with the wrong people, or lest the client is revealing information to our vital witnesses, who I do not want having ammunition against my client when the prosecutor asks on cross examination: "What did you discuss with the defendant about this case?"

With many of my clients talking about their cases with friends and family members, I will sometimes hear from those friends and family members as well. Sometimes the friend or family member will mis-state what I have told my client, whether that arises from my client’s misunderstanding, the friend or family’s misunderstanding or both. Sometimes the friend or family member misstates what the client has said, without relation to anything I have said. If my client has felt it important enough to discuss their case with the friend or family member (but sometimes the client only talks under pressure or urging by the friend or family member to do so), then that alone makes it important for me to talk with those friends and family members. To reduce further miscommunication, I generally prefer that my client be present in person or on the phone with us when I speak with the friend or family member.

To find the place where the client is — as part of helping the client — requires full time and attention, and time, plenty of time; not the meatball surgery cut-and-sew-them-up time/resources crunch necessity exemplified in M*A*S*H. To do otherwise means not to have provided the client complete and holistic service.

Those who do not want to hear dark and sad stories and tales of woe need not apply to become criminal defense lawyers. The path to successful results as a criminal defense lawyer includes a ride into some of the darkest recesses of human plights, motivations and concerns. Avoid going there, and fail to connect with the defendant and to be able to humanize him or her and enable judges, jurors and prosecutors to relate to him or her. Going down that path requires that the lawyer not get sucked into dark and weakening feelings along the way, lest the lawyer become a less powerful advocate for his clients and a weakened person.

Regardless of how often I learn clients’ dark tales, my work overall brings tremendous brightness to my life, not only because of what I can do to help my clients, but also because of my many clients who are able to put their cases in perspective and still remain optimistic (which is easier to do when knowing that active jail and terrible collateral case consequences are unlikely if convicted). One client, for instance, floored me when recounting the compassion and interest with which he held the police officers handling his drunk driving case. Doubtlessly, the police were all the kinder to him as a result, seeing that he was a compassionate person that was no physical threat to them. This approach can be achieved while still following my urging not to speak with police when investigated (other than telling them one’s name when the law might so require), and to refuse police searches.

When I hear dark and potentially depressing stories and information from my clients and elsewhere, I need to disinfect it with light and neutralization, lest I get dragged down into a black hole. My teacher Ihaleakala Hew Len talks of the necessity of reaching the power of zero largely through cleaning out the data that we carry. I do not have the luxury of forgetting the data of my client’s case, as I must know it for the defense of my client’s case, and I cannot forget the governing law, because that is part of my essential arsenal. I can, however, avoid attaching to the dark things I learn, and I can engage my client and his or her entire case without being dragged down by the information and case.

Dr. Hew Len says that when we learn about the plight of others, we then have responsibility over that information by cleaning on it, by saying — I believe to our subconscious that now has been exposed to that information — sorry (for exposing the subconscious to the information), I love you (I give my subconscious my compassion over your exposure to the information), thank you (for the opportunity to deal with the information), and please forgive me (for my role in presenting the information to my subconscious). Whether or not repeating sorry, I love you, thank you and please forgive me sounds nuts, the concept of cleaning out — not erasing — our memories and data helps bring us tozero limits. At zero limits, we are the most powerful. When I come to my client from zero limits and stay at zero limits, there is nothing to phase me and everything to inspire and invigorate me to keep fighting as effectively and powerfully as I can for my client. The same can be said for life overall; when I engage with life from zero limits and with non-attachment, other people and outside forces cannot dictate my sense of well-being or strength; my sense of well-being and strength all comes from within and from my daily practice of mindfulness, non-attachment, engaging, neutralizing, harmonizing, and fighting.