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Love your client – Do not belittle her

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I strongly believe in loving my clients. When I started with the Maryland Public Defender’s Office on my criminal defense path in 1991, I was riveted at a training session by a fellow very experienced public defender lawyer from over thirty miles away who insisted that we love our clients, and never ever create seating distance from them at counsel table, even if they are unbathed. Just fourteen miles away was my prior corporate law firm two blocks from the White House in a nice high-rise building that would not have trained about loving clients versus giving corporate clients ethical top service in an antiseptic way. While I learned great things about advocacy from some great and very smart lawyers at that firm, I felt like a member at a revival meeting when that public defender lawyer admonished us to love our clients. I felt I had arrived home, even though this lawyer was not sounding a theme sounded by many other colleagues in that agency.

Less than two years later, that same public defender lawyer shot himself dead after finding himself in some dire straits. I had never taken the time to tell him how deeply and permanently his words resonated with me. I mistakenly assumed he knew how highly so many people felt about him. I should have spoken up. His words still resonate positively with me.

About a year and a half after joining the public defender’s officer, one of the more highly experience public defender lawyers approvingly pointed out to me that one of the assistant public defenders and prosecutors were laughing about a trial they had the day before together. I was disgusted, jumping to a conclusion that they were laughing about the client or his misfortune; that may have been judging on my part, but I could not imagine what else they were laughing about.

Criminal defendants are humans and need to be humanized. If their own lawyers will not do that, who will? With indigent criminal defendants, they do not even get to choose who defends them; they must be treated with the same full dignity as clients paying from their own pocket. Classism has no part in criminal defense.

Do I ever joke with prosecutors at my clients’ expense? Sometimes, when they give me permission during my effort to negotiate a favorable resolution of their case, including dropping the prosecution entirely. But I seek my client’s permission first before underlining to the prosecutor that my client "acted like a dingaling" the night of the arrest, but being a dingaling is not a crime.

If I am going to joke about anyone in the courthouse, I prefer that it be about me. For instance, on the road to winning a bench trial for driving under the influence of marijuana, I objected to the prosecutor’s asking the cop about my client’s admission to past marijuana use. As part of backing up my objection, I said "My client’s prior marijuana use has as much to do with this case as my prior marijuana use." The judge, who is one of the kindest people on the bench and off, and among the most favorable sentencers, is one of the toughest to get a "not" before "guilty" from.

The judge good naturedly leaned forwards, saying: "Mr. Katz, do you realize that you just disqualified yourself from serving on the Supreme Court?" I replied: "Judge, I disqualified myself a looooong time ago." Actually what I meant — only having smoked the stinky weed five times in my life, and never after law school started — was that I had set myself apart years ago from the political conformity that makes judicial nominees desirable to government exexutives to nominate and legislatures to confirm. More importantly, why would I want to rule in favor of a prosecution?

Many of my clients feel like major fishes out of water in the courthouse, even if they feel as confident and revered as can be in their usual work and family roles. They do not need their angst increased by seeing me provide them anything less than my full compassion. It is my honor to do so. 

Love your client.