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How a criminal defense lawyer can persuade without being sucked into human drama

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Most of my criminal defense clients manage their daily lives rather well in the face of their pending court cases. Some get consumed by their cases from time to time, and sometimes share that with me.

I have thought of criminal defense lawyers being akin to psychological professionals and priests during confession, hearing some of the darkest experiences, demons, ideas and concerns of those who include some who appear to the rest of the world as among the most successful and put-together people in so many ways.

When a psychological professional or criminal defense lawyer does his or her job well, the client feels better at the end of the conversation. However, that conversation usually is a one-way street with the psychologist or lawyer giving comfort and support to the client, without the comfort and support flowing the other way. The client might reason that this is the way it should be, considering all the client is paying for such service.

Whereas a criminal defense lawyer must fight to reverse his or her clients’ imbalanced situations and to advocate their cases, psychologists have no advocacy obligations for their patients, but are tasked with helping them to heal. I understand that psychologists-to-be often or always include classes on avoiding feeling traumatized by all the trauma they hear from their patients. No such idea was present in law school, where such a high percentage of my classmates were not destined, in the first place, to serve individual people as clients, rather than corporations, organizations and government entities. I have heard about a high rate of suicide among lawyers compared to other professions. I wonder where criminal defense lawyers fall in that statistic, and whether such a high suicide rate is instead more common among lawyers serving corporations with mind-numbing work and grueling work demands without feeling a sense of serving society (which is not to say that corporate law work cannot be fulfilling). While helping their clients, lawyers should not neglect their own physical, mental, and spiritual health. In fact, a lawyer who is healthy in all those respects is all the more powerful for his or her clients. As a criminal defense lawyer, I must engage fully with my clients and their cases without letting myself get attached to the dark sides of their cases, whether the dark sides come from their prosecution itself, those involved in the prosecution, my clients’ alleged behavior, or other aspects of my clients.

Fortunately for me, I have a strong support system among many criminal defense lawyers and among many fellow attendees of the Trial Lawyers College. Better still, I am usually able to rely on myself to not get sucked in by my clients’ cases and their personal and case drama (I am not using "drama" disparagingly, but with an acknowledgment of reality), while remaining fully engaged with my clients and committed to their cases. I suppose I went through stages to get to such a point. When I engaged in human rights advocacy starting in college with Amnesty International, I got overly consumed with the rampant misery and human rights violations being inflicted worldwide by governments, private entities and individuals. Then, as a lawyer, I felt all the more empowered in fighting for justice, because I was able to obtain real, instant, and measurable results for my clients in court, as opposed to the then-common approach of Amnesty International of appealing to the very government officials who were urinating on human rights, urging United States politicians to stand up to the human rights violators, and trying to get our human rights message far and wide to the public opinion arena.

At my best, I vibrate highly for my clients, witnesses, legal team and me as we pursue the criminal defense battle. Humor, music (made of and emanating with vibrations), and magic — in discovering, cultivating, and delighting in my own personal magic and in benefiting from my four decades as an amateur magician – help me on that path. So does this passage by Ringu Tulku that helped matters unfold all the better for me in a book I bought several years ago: See "directly without adding any concept or philosophy. Within this clear vision there is not the slightest doubt about anything, so there is no need for clinging or running away… Although we see that others are suffering greatly, we know that their suffering is almost needless. They are not doomed to be in pain, because their suffering just comes from a wrong way of seeing and reacting. If they could see how things truly are, they would not suffer anymore." Ringu Tulku, Daring Steps Toward Fearlessness: The Three Vehicles of Buddhism at 58 (Snow Lion Publications, 2005).

As Geshe Kelsang Gyatso says: "A controlled mind will remain calm and happy no matter what the conditions." How to reach that controlled mind that will remain calm and happy? For me, it starts with finding fulfillment from inside me, and not from the vagaries of the weather, time, and public opinion. To find fulfillment from inside, one must find peace. Meditation and mindfulness are an important part of that, whether the moving meditation of taijiquan or sitting meditation. So is following the path of zero. There is no out there for the mind. Everything unfolds from finding internal fulfillment.

When I feel fulfilled, unblocked, and abundant in my health and well being,  I am closer to success for my clients and me, and in inspiring my clients — and having them inspire me back — on the path to victory. When I wake up feeling dread over the state of the world, I am helping nobody.