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No Warm Fuzzies Here

The work of a criminal defense lawyer is often thankless.  You can put your heart and soul into something, and at the end of the day, you may be the only human being on earth who knows what good you’ve done, what difference you’ve made. When it looks like you’ve messed up, however, it rarely escapes notice. You’ll get caught. You’ll get called on it whether it’s your fault or not. I got to experience some of the thankless nature of the job yesterday morning.

My first hearing was a change of plea. The client is already serving a prison sentence, and he has a couple of years left to go. There’s a decent constitutional issue, so I convinced the prosecutor to make him an offer to concurrent time. He’s already maxed out on felonies, so another conviction won’t enhance his sentencing range in the future. For all practical purposes, the plea is as good as a dismissal or a not guilty verdict at trial.

My only way of discussing a plea offer with a client in prison is by setting up a legal visit or legal call through the client’s “CO3,” a corrections officer assigned to him. In his case, I tried numerous times to set something up through his CO3. At first, I couldn’t get in touch with her. Then, she set up a meeting for a time she wasn’t there and forgot to tell her replacement about the visit. My file is full of entries where I tried to get in touch with her. It took forever to finally set something up.

When I spoke with my client and confirmed that he wanted the plea, it was too late to file a motion to get him transported. My prisoner clients generally hate being pulled away from their daily routine to be hauled to jail and then to court, and it’s a waste of the county’s time and money to file a motion for transport and get an order, make the sheriff go across the state to get someone, haul them back, and house them for a hearing where nothing happens. As a general rule, I don’t automatically file for transport. By the time I knew I should in that client’s case, there wasn’t enough time for the sheriff to actually carry out the order.

When I called the case in court yesterday, I had no clue that, as I had been doing my best to contact my client, he had gotten upset and written the judge a letter saying I wasn’t doing anything on his case. He complained that I didn’t care about him.

On the record, the judge told me about the letter then showed it to me. It was the first I heard of it. Suddenly, I understood why the client seemed embarrassed when I finally talked with him and explained what I had done. As of yesterday’s hearing, the client was exceedingly happy with the representation. Unfortunately, no one else in court knew that. No one knew I’d actually done my job.

In my second hearing, I had filed a motion for transport for a client. That client was being held in a different county’s jail. Although everyone told me a transport order wasn’t necessary for that type of transport, I filed it anyway because the sheriff failed to transport him to the last several hearings. Getting my client to court had been an absolute ordeal every time.

The client wanted to enter a plea, but he was initially set for a hearing on Monday in front of a judge who wouldn’t hear pleas. I filed a motion to vacate the Monday hearing and set the matter for a change of plea yesterday in front of a judge who would actually hear it. The clerk and the judges’ assistants both told me my client would be transported on Wednesday and that the judge would just vacate the Monday hearing.

When I got to the hearing yesterday, I found out that the sheriff had miraculously transported my client for Monday’s hearing then brought him back to the other county’s jail. Despite the signed transport order issued by the court, they brought my client to the wrong hearing, the one that should have been vacated. To make matters worse, someone left the motion to vacate, which supposedly had been granted, out of the court file. With the client there, me gone, and nothing in the file, the judge on Monday apparently got upset with me on the record. The minute entry from Monday ordered me personally to appear on a future date.

No one thought to tell me what had happened, so I didn’t find out about any of this until the last minute. I walked into the courthouse yesterday thinking everything was going to proceed smoothly. I’d done everything that could’ve been expected of me, everything I could have done. Anyone else, however, would look at the situations and assume I’d somehow made mistakes. Luckily, I didn’t have any other hearings that could go wrong.

Instead, I next went to visit a client. We previously had a change of release hearing, and the judge took my motion under advisement. After my irritating morning hearings, I found out the judge had issued an order reducing my client’s bond from the price of a house to the price of a motorcycle. The judge even modified his conditions to let him travel out of state for work. I walked over to the jail looking forward to being the bearer of good news.

Sadly, I didn’t get so much as a thank you. I probably would’ve gotten a happier reaction from the client had I told him it was taco salad day at the jail. He’s probably bonded out by now, but I doubt he’s even considered that I might have helped him out. Do something bad, or even something that looks bad, and you get hammered. Do some good, and you get nothing.

Strangely, I’m not bitter about yesterday. Maybe it seems like I’m complaining by talking about my morning, but that isn’t my intention. Yesterday wasn’t atypical. It looks like it won’t even be my most thankless day this week. I’m moved to write about it not because I need to whine, but because some other superficially unrelated things made me think about it in a different light.

I recently hired some clerks who are either new lawyers or law school graduates pending bar passage. Some of them request input after sending me their work. I can’t blame them, as I would probably feel the same way in their situation. I send them my finished product, the pleadings and other substantial documents based in part on their work, but they also seem to want critique. I get the feeling they want compliments mostly. They appear to want me to tell them they did a good job, not just what they should improve. I keep wondering if I ever felt the same way. I’m sure I did. How much did I seek positive feedback a few years ago? How hurt would I have been then if I had to experience a day like yesterday?

In this job, I often feel like I’m the only person who knows exactly what I’ve done. I bet I often am, and I think it’s the same for most criminals defense lawyers. As a result, I think most of us learn to derive satisfaction not from other people appreciating our work, but from knowing we did our best. It’s the best and maybe the only way to be happy and feel a sense of accomplishment in a profession where your defeats feel public and your victories feel private.

I compliment my clerks in the areas where they deserve it, but it feels strange. It feels like something that doesn’t match the nature of the profession. Am I coddling? Why should I give them something they will likely never get when they handle their own caseload? Am I giving them unrealistic expectations about how the practice of law is going to be?

The nature of the profession doesn’t seem to change much when lawyers go online.  Blogging lawyers, the ones I read at least, tend to call each other out a lot more than they pat each other on the back.  Like Mark Bennett said yesterday, “This is Not the Happysphere.” Scott Greenfield agreed. Norm Pattis might agree too, but he doesn’t seem to like it.

The online debate among lawyers can be fierce. It’s a stark contrast to me diplomatically telling someone I’m paying what I liked about their memo. Plenty of blogging lawyers rip each other to shreds for even the tiniest little tidbits of stupidity. Like in the profession itself, the defeats, not the victories, tend to dominate a lawyer’s online presence. A hundred thought-provoking posts might not get half the traffic of one badly-thought-out one. I don’t know if that’s a good thing or a bad thing. It certainly helps to prepare online lawyers for the thankless, critical environment of the legal profession.

All of this led me to think about a friend who recently got a cushy job playing with a symphony orchestra. He mentioned to me how different it felt going from the music school environment, where every concert is followed by celebration where beer and compliments flow freely, to the professional environment, where you sometimes have to quietly drive home after a concert without hearing so much as a “nice job!” The disconnect is even more notable between law school and the legal profession.

I saw more people desperately seeking validation in law school than I’ve ever seen in my life. Hands flew up in the air to answer questions first, each student making sure his or her answer showed the professor his or her stupendous intellect. People made the most ridiculous self-serving statements I’ve ever heard. For the most part, if a student fished long enough for a compliment, he or she would get one.

I have no clue whether the constant desire for input I saw in my classmates, the same thing I see in some of the people I hire, is a generational thing or not. I also have no clue whether it’s good or bad to give people the affirmation they seek. What I do know, however, is that those aren’t desires that are going to be satisfied easily in the world of criminal defense, whether online or in practice.

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5 Responses to "No Warm Fuzzies Here"

  1. shg says:

    Diplomacy is in the eye of the beholder, as is comprehension. Unfortunately, I see people who offer their thoughts diplomatically, only to have the soft, nuanced points misunderstood because they weren’t clear enough. Or, if they are understood, taken as if they are the most vitriolic, ad hominem attack ever. If someone can’t handle a challenge, diplomacy isn’t likely to blunt the anger.

    Anything short of effusive praise falls into the category of an outrageous unwarranted attack. The choice is clear. Either praise or say nothing. Anything else and it’s the start of a war.

  2. mahtso says:

    I think that shg has identified a common cause of the problem, but we should always be mindful that we can give criticism with diplomacy or with brutal honesty. Generally speaking, diplomacy will work better and, if that is the norm, it will make the brutal approach more effective in the instances where brutal honesty is required.

    I see this unwillingness to accept criticism when a person asks me to review a document and is then completely unwilling to discuss and consider my suggestions (and rest assured, all I would ever offer are suggestions). I know a man who, when asked to review a document, responds by asking: do you really want my feedback, or should I go work on something else for a while and then come tell you the document is perfect?

  3. Andrew Becke says:

    … and that’s why we carry malpractice insurance.

  4. shg says:

    A very thoughtful post, Matt. I’ve discussed many times that this is a generational problem, not because Gen Y is evil but because we raised them poorly. We instlled that expectation of constant praise for doing the ordinary, and it created problems we never anticipated. That said, it needs to change, as the real world won’t shower young people with constant praise, and they are just miserable about it. That’s unhelpful and unproductive.

    As for criminal lawyers being a bit tougher than others, it’s more a matter of our independence streak and long-standing appreciation of the harm that’s done our clients, whether by cops, prosecutors, judges or other criminal defense lawyers. It’s not that we aren’t here to help. We are indeed, as you no doubt noticed when you were attacked by the locals for writing about a CDL. On the other hand, more experienced lawyers (other than Norm) tend not to be nearly as concerned with being loved by others as they are about doing the right thing, even if that means doing the dirty work of calling out impropriety. It’s what we do. We’re used to being unloved for not going with the program. That’s our life.

    I see many younger lawyers incapable of taking heat. Not just a lot of heat, but any heat at all. They love being loved, and hate being challenged. They aren’t going to cut it in criminal defense. We need to push forward whether we will be loved or hated for what we do. And if they can’t take a little challenge here, they surely won’t love it when the judge tells them they’re ugly, stupid and wrong. That’s the life we chose.

  5. Phil says:

    ‘Really interesting post, Matt. I’m sorry to hear about your bad day. I have to say that this sentence really sums up one of my biggest pet peeves about teaching:

    “They appear to want me to tell them they did a good job, not just what they should improve.”

    I am amazed that people go into a situation ostensibly to learn, but in reality only want to be told how great they are. I’m sure I must have been the same way to some degree, but now that I am on the other side of the equation as a teacher, it is really frustrating to deal with. You want to help students learn and impress upon them the seriousness and importance of getting things right, but you also don’t want to destroy their self-confidence or make them feel hopeless. It’s a tough one.

    I can relate to the friend you mention with the symphony gig, being in that situation myself. There are days when you get a lot of praise, for a concerto or orchestral solo for example, but most of the time, you just pour your heart out on stage and wonder if anyone notices. Obviously it’s a different profession, but I’ve found with music, anyway, that I’m happier when I am focused on enjoying my craft and not getting caught up in playing for praise or attention. What is that Zen quote, something like “work is done and then forgotten; therefore it lasts forever.” I kind of like that one.

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