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The power of community

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How many people factor community in their choices of college and graduate school, jobs, cities to live in and homes to live in? We are challenged on a daily basis to transcend living a fragmented life to a life connected with others, with nature, and with all the elements around us. Daily life challenges us with substantial work hours and commutes, and limited time to attend to such basics as a doctor’s visit, to spend quality time with ourselves/family/friends; and to provide ourselves sufficiently balanced nutrition and rest.

Meditation and mindfulness certainly help alleviate the foregoing challenges. So does benefiting from a supportive community of similarly-minded people.

As an antidote against feeling alone (other than being on a team with my client) and isolated in the courtroom, I sometimes summon the image of my mentors Steve Rench to my left, Jun Yasuda to my right, and Cheng Man Ch’ing to my rear when in the courthouse. Sometimes, the courtroom and courthouse itself have colleagues sending good vibrations and ideas my way towards victory, working for all of us to rise together, rather than seeing successful competition as stepping on colleagues’ heads and necks in a race to win clients and name recognition. An even bigger gift are my colleagues who for years have selflessly given up time on a weekend morning — sometimes driving many miles — to join at my office for workshops to prepare me and my clients for my trial presentation and their testimony. As I revel in these wonderful teamwork opportunities, it becomes all the more alien to remember the words of a former corporate law firm litigation mentor who said to a former solo practitioner at the firm that it must not be easy not to have another lawyer in the office next door to bandy about ideas. Granted, the Internet helps eliminate such isolation, but for me it helps just knowing that there are great colleagues who will drop whatever they are doing when I am close to starting a trial or in the middle of a trial, to lend moral support, brainstorming, and other ideas; and I am there to help with the same.

While I have made public my dissent from the Trial Lawyers College’s squandering its ability to be something much greater than it is, I have benefitted tremendously from the Trial Lawyers College’s and National Criminal Defense College’s Trial Practice Institute’s hammering home the lesson that true success as a trial lawyer requires acknowledging when we need moral support, brainstorming help, and ideas from colleagues, rather than walking into the courtroom pretending that we can perform well for our clients by doing all the lifting ourselves, without ever consulting with colleagues on any cases.

The times have been too many when I see a courtroom empty of supporters for my clients, even when they are risking serious jail time if convicted. For those who have committed particularly despicable crimes — rather than being merely accused of them –how many were influenced by feelings of isolation and disconnect in their lives? When people go to prison, what type of positive community life do they find, if at all? Fortunately, such former prisoners as Jean Harris foundways to create and build beneficial communities in prison, with Harris having worked with fellow inmates in obtaining their GED’s and with other opportunities.

Each of us can help provide others with a deep feeling of positive community by reaching out to others, and to help them rise in life as we rise. I am not talking about being paternalistic, patronizing, overhelping, overbearing, nor over-sacrificing. I am talking about listening and acting compassionately, and offering help when help is wanted. Not one yet heavily into platonic hugs at the time, I remember how much better I felt when I got an unsolicited group hug outside the courthouse in 2000, from a bunch of supporters of the depleted uranium Plowshares defendants, after a long-seeming afternoon learning more about what it is like to defend activists who put their message ahead of their liberty. And moments earlier, I witnessed the same supporters join in solidarity in the courtroom — seemingly unconcerned about the risks of being found in contempt of court, which did not happen — once the defendants put a stop to their participation in trial, with the supporters joining in unison to the hymn, apparently from the Catholic Worker tradition "Courage, sister, you do not walk alone, We will walk with you and send your spirit home" (here sung by the Deer Park monastics). I was in awe of this solidarity, and recognized the comfort that it gave the four defendants, all locked up pretrial, having not sough bail. Two of the Plowshares defendants were from the Jonah House community, which is a group that heavily underlines living, working, helping and resisting in community.

In this nation with a history of so-called pioneers (I call them so-called, because Native Americans preceded them long before) and vast lands with sparse populations in the early days, individualism took hold early on. Nevertheless, we can build beneficial communities without sacrificing individual liberties and a more democratic society. We are all connected, and are naturally destined to build and benefit from productive communities.

As a criminal defense lawyer, it is much better that I know my back is covered when I walk into the courtroom with my client, than having to be as concerned about watching for bows and arrows from all directions. It is better for my client, as well.