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Knowing One’s True Self As A Criminal Defense Lawyer

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Knowing one's true self as a criminal defense lawyer-1995 Trial Lawyers College Photo

Knowing one’s true self as a criminal defense lawyer. (1995 Trial Lawyers College- I am in the center row, 4 people to the left of Bob Rose, on the scooter)

Knowing one’s true self can at once be painful and exhilarating, and is essential to persuading as a criminal defense lawyer

Knowing one’s true self is vital to anyone’s life. As a Fairfax criminal lawyer, I know that discovering and recognizing my true self is essential not only to me as a person, but for everything I do as a criminal defense lawyer, from connecting and empathizing with clients, to discovering and conveying their persuasive story, to persuasively engaging witnesses on both sides of the ring, and to persuading judges, jurors, prosecutors and police. I have experienced repeatedly turning myself and my soul inside out to know myself as a person and trial lawyer. The experience can be deeply painful, but is also essential and exhilarating, and the pain can heal to become a powerful building block for becoming stronger and stronger. For me, the alternative is to be a shadow of a human being.

From the non-lawyer side, I have received lessons of knowing one’s true self from Hyon Gak Sunim, whose response to the excitement of some people in Korea to be photographed with him was: “What’s the use of looking at this ugly American bastard? You should rather look at yourself, your true self, in the mirror.” Similarly, my teacher Ihaleakala Hew Len underlines that to solve “problems, two questions must be addressed: Who am I? Who’s in charge?… To apprehend the nature of the cosmos begins with the insight of Socrates: ‘Know thyself.'” Hyon Gak Sunim emphasizes the benefits of Zen meditation to being able to know oneself. Dr. Hew Len focuses on cleaning excess data from one’s self consciousness to clear away the cloudiness from recognizing who we are. He ascribes to the idea that “decisions are made before Consciousness makes them. And that the Intellect is not aware of this, believing that it decides.” One’s true self is in many way unchanging and is at the soul level.

The Trial Lawyers College was a magical place for finding one’s true self

The first places I found where criminal defense and trial lawyers were encouraged to knowing and being their true selves were the National Criminal Defense College’s Trial Practice Institute, which I attended for two weeks in 1994, and the 1995 Trial Lawyers College. The multi-week intensive Trial Lawyers College now is embroiled in a weeks-long, irreversibly deep schism between, on the one side, Gerry Spence — who spearheaded the college — and board members who side with him, and on the other side the remaining board members (both sides claim they are the majority — that’s some math) who were for years very much in sync with much of Gerry’s vision, but who finally faced irreconcilable differences with him.

The TLC schism battle may be more relevant to those who are concerned about the TLC’s ongoing mission of helping people’s lawyers fight Goliath, and who have invested substantial human hours and sums of money to the college. I am more interested in continuing with knowing and improving myelf as a criminal defense lawyer and to be available for others on that path, and know that by now we have well over one thousand Trial Lawyers College alums nationwide, with several in Virginia and the nearby states, with whom I can and do meet and talk about developing winning approaches for our trials, sometimes adding the assistance and expertise of a psychodramatist and even a storytelling specialist, where this is about mining ourselves and the situation for the real story which becomes the persuasive story, and which can radically change the story that the trial lawyer first tells early in defense preparation than the more finished story that s/he is ready to instill into and unfold before the jury and/or judge. Through my participation in the NCDC and the Trial Lawyers College and ongoing collaboration with TLC attendees, I am more able to find my own magic and to unleash it to transcend what previously seemed virtually insurmountable obstacles. As SunWolf reminds us: Reality is No Obstacle.

How did the Trial Lawyers College help me in finding my true self?

When I attended the Trial Lawyers College — now a much different place with more methodologies and fewer faculty members who did not themselves attend the TLC — it was a new and raw laboratory, only in its second year, ten miles from the nearest paved road and more miles than that from the nearest town, a small one at that, where those at neighboring western Wyoming ranches would not hear wails of tears from some of the attendees who had just revealed their whole selves and sometimes their most painful defining life moments through a psychodrama exercise, nor the whoops and hollers of delight at being alive, knowing our true selves, and helping our clients reclaim the parts of their lives that that they had seen taken away. We had four dozen women and men from around the country, both criminal defense and civil trial lawyers, running from public defender lawyers to those who were so invested in becoming better trial lawyers that some of them probably lost tens and thousands of dollars and more in revenue during that month where we had two pay phones available, lousy cellphone service that required going to a mountain peak, and no Internet hookup, when it was 1995 with few people using email nor the Internet yet anyway. Through our revealing ourselves to each other with everyone’s pledge to support us and keep it confidential in the process, and through this isolation from the rest of the world, we formed bonds with each other that otherwise take years to develop in the ordinary world.

Those at the TLC who most importantly urged and helped me on the path to finding and knowing my true self included my roommate Bob Hilliard, a great man who reminded me of the great power I have through my passion for justice and love for others; psychodramatist John Nolte, who underlined that if I carry around my deepest pain hidden away, others will have more trouble relating to me; criminal defense lawyer Nancy Hollander, who urged me on to powerful taijiquan-type relaxing and sinking, without even realizing that is what she was inspiring; Steve Rench, my trial practice-teaching superman who dares us to be great; Gerry Spence, who despite his shortcomings is the walking embodiment of becoming powerfully persuasive by recognizing, feeling, embracing, and engaging with our pain; and Don Clarkson, my local friend and psychodramatist, who starts every conversation about one of my clients, with how I am feeling and where I am with my feelings and presence as I get to know my client and fully discovery his or her story; and fight for my client in the face of often heartless-seeming prosecutors, opposing witnesses and judges.

The TLC taught and helped me further develop what I have always known: Be real, and be your best real self

Society is filled with pressure to conform and not to be overly individualistic, to be a team player, not to rock the boat, and to do as the Romans do when in Rome (but Romans are not monolithic). In other words, we feel pressure to be automatons, cogs in the wheel, and commodities. None of that has ever sat well with me. Otherwise, I would never have become a criminal defense lawyer in the first place. I came to the path of criminal defense yearning to do such work while at a corporate law firm where I had some great mentors and got some great litigation experience, but where I did not see myself giving back to society. I succeeded in shifting my career to criminal defense, first as a public defender lawyer for five years, thrilling in serving indigent clients in reversing the uneven courthouse playing field, and later becoming my own boss in private practice, continuing on the path of knowing my true self.

Knowing those with whom you engage

As a person progresses in knowing his or her true self, s/he better knows others and can better engage and persuade them. This includes reaching their heart and feeling zone, encapsulated in Carl Buehner’s point (made long before the attribution to Maya Angelou)  that “they may forget what you said, but they will never forget how you made them feel.”

Fairfax criminal lawyer Jonathan L. Katz pursues your best defense against felony, misdemeanor, and DUI prosecutions. Call 703-383-1100 for a free consultation with Jon Katz about your court-pending criminal or DWI case.

1 Comment

  1. victormalcalaw on June 25, 2020 at 7:21 am

    I couldn’t agree with you more. You are absolutely right! Always be yourself no matter what. Thank you so much for sharing this.