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Reconnecting with NACDL members after 13 years

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Today through this Saturday is a golden opportunity for area criminal defense lawyers to attend the Washington, D.C., quarterly CLE conference of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, which last had a quarterly conference in this area in 1999.

The continuing legal education program is entitled Reasonable Doubt and Actual Innocence: Winning Your Case with Cutting-Edge Evidence. The program is being held at the Omni hotel in Woodley Park. Criminal defense lawyers based on Washington, D.C., Virginia and Maryland get a discounted rate of $270, apparently even if they are not NACDL members.

The NACDL has a special place in my heart, because my membership in the group was a critical catalyst in my transitioning in 1991 from working at corporate law firm to becoming a public defender lawyer.

My catalyzed path to switching to criminal defense was influenced not only by the NACDL but also by High Times followed by then-NORML national director Don Fiedler followed by NACDL. In 1990, I first took out a subscription to High Times magazine in protest over a Louisiana federal prosecutor’s subpoenaing the magazine’s advertiser records — as reported by Index on Censorship — in an apparent effort to clamp down on hydroponic sellers and customers, and various other suspected marijuana-related vendors. I wrote to then-attorney general Dick Thornburgh about my protest, and cc’d it to High Times; I received a reply from neither. I read each issue, and perhaps the most beneficial article was the one on then-NORML national director Don Fiedler, whom I discuss here.

Not long after starting my High Times subscription in those days before Al Gore discovered the Internet, I received an issue with an interview and full-page interview of the late Nebraska criminal defense lawyer Don Fiedler, who at the time was the national director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), which then seemed to be operating on a limited budget and probably a lot of love by Don and NORML’s board members.

I then met Don in the flesh at the April 1990 Earth Day in Washington, DC, where, among other things, he was showing people items made of hemp. I was floored; I had not yet hobnobbed with those in the marijuana legalization movement, something that would change within a few months with my attending a hempfest across the White House and the annual NORML conference that was held in Washington, D.C. in 1990. Don and I met for lunch a few months later, after I wrote him a letter offering NORML pro bono help; this was before the days of e-mail. I next saw Don in January 1991, when, during the second weekend anti-Gulf War I march, he was marching with NORML t-shirts for sale that read "HEMP FOR OIL, NOT BLOOD."

I called up Don not long after, and told him of my desire to switch to criminal defense from my 25-lawyer corporate law firm, where I did litigation and regulatory work for financial institutions and transportation companies. Since he knew I did not want to prosecute, he recommended starting with a public defender office or opening my own firm, since salaried job openings for private blue collar criminal defense lawyers without criminal defense experience was a tough nut to crack. Don continued encouraging my dream to switch to criminal defense. He sponsored my application to the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, which, curiously, at the time had as its executive director Keith Stroup, who was the first national director of the very NORML organization that Don was then leading.

I attended my first NACDL meeting in spring 1991 in Philadelphia, where the topics included winning trials starting with interacting with the potential jury pool in the voir dire proceedings, and practicing criminal defense while being able to send one’s children to college. I sat in awe hearing longtime chief Chicago federal defender Terry McCarthy show with his very being how we can transcend the many hurdles to victory in defending criminal defendants (which is particularly optimistic when considering the huge conviction rate of federal felony defendants), was mesmerized by the late Pat Williams (who would say he was just five feet eighteen inches tall) who spoke about persuading jurors in the buckle of the bible belt, was floored to hear New York lawyer Gerald Lefcourt speak of his days defending Abbie Hoffman (who told Gerry that he needed Gerry to keep him out of jail so that he could keep doing his activism), and New York lawyer David Lewis who said that he and his eventual law partner concluded that nobody would hire them, so they hired each other and became law partners, with David getting a name for himself in those pre-Internet days in part by circulating articles he had written about important areas of the criminal defense practice.

By now, much of the foregoing items are basic for me. However, they are basic because I started learning and internalizing them early on in my criminal defense career

I felt invigorated to be around lawyers at this first NACDL meeting who were doing the battles I wanted to do. I wondered whether any meetings that my corporate law firm colleagues were attending came anywhere close to the fiery energy that I felt from so many at the NACDL meetings. I very much doubt it.

Three months after my first NACDL meeting, I got a trial lawyer position at the Maryland Public Defender’s Office. I deeply appreciated the mentorship and confidence that I received from lawyers at my now-previous corporate law firm — including the invaluable writing and pretrial experience I got there — but I never looked back, did not miss my fancy desk with a view just two blocks from the White House, and was totally invigorated, as I remain today.

For the next three years, I attended several NACDL meetings in such places as Chicago, Indianapolis and Rhode Island, together with two legislative fly-ins in Washington, D.C. Beyond the many excellent criminal defense lawyers I was already meeting in Maryland, the NACDL had some of the most stratospherically accomplished and energized criminal defense lawyers, who importantly were there to help their colleagues on the same path, including such angels as Judy Clark, Gerry Goldstein, Lisa Monet Wayne (whom I saw today for the first time in thirteen years), David Lewis, Andrea Lyon, and Nancy Hollander.

Through the NACDL, the National Criminal Defense College, the Trial Lawyers College and the First Amendment Lawyers Association, by now I know many great lawyers throughout the country who I can call (and they can call me) when needing to brainstorm or in any other kind of need. How blessed I am, for instance, that when I called a New Mexico public defender colleague in 1994 to share ideas on how I could clinch the New Mexico assistant federal public defender job that I was flying over to interview for, he invited me to stay overnight at his home (which invitation I did not anticipate nor seek, but deeply appreciated for the time to spend with this great person and lawyer before hitting the road southwards to the interview in Las Cruces). This is but one small example of the power of birds of a criminal defense feather lending our hands and hearts to each other.

Soon after I became a public defender lawyer, Don Fiedler strongly recommended that I attend the National Criminal Defense College’s Trial Practice Institute, also known as Macon, which I discuss here. NCDC’s Trial Practice Institute’s admissions chances were tough for public defender lawyers, because they comprised the vast number of applicants, and were not eligible for the private practitioner slots set aside for the Trial Practice Institute. I attended in 1994, where I was blessed with learning from SunWolf, John Delgado, Larry Pozner, Lisa Wayne, Ed Mallett, Andrea Lyon, and the list goes on. I was happier than a rat in a cheese factory.

My attendance at NACDL meetings tapered off to just attending the meetings in Washington, D.C., as I became my own boss in 1998 and added other national lawyer gatherings to the mix.

Today was my first NACDL meeting in over thirteen years. I bumped into many of the members whom I first met twenty-two years ago, and remembered again how so many of them spoke so kindly and generously with me when I was just starting out as a criminal defense lawyer, even though I had little experience to offer back to them. They all knew the necessity of sharing the gifts we have learned, with our colleagues and clients.

Tonight, I walked up to Kentucky lawyer Jerry Cox, and thanked him for having been such a mensch with me from the get go in 1991, with his kindness. In his typically ego-less fashion, Jerry was pleased to know that that was how he approached me. Jerry is but one example of the many NACDL members who have done the same with me since two decades ago.

The NACDL’s motto has been that with the NACDL, we criminal defense lawyers are never alone. I deeply thank and bow to the many NACDL members who have supported and inspired me along the path.