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.