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» Clients, Practice in General » Clients, Contracts, and Good Deeds

Clients, Contracts, and Good Deeds

I could barely understand what she was saying. The woman on the phone was hysterical. She called me that afternoon out of desperation and was so distraught she didn’t make an awful lot of sense. I could piece together that her son was charged with a felony, that his arraignment was coming up very soon, and that he would lose his job if he had to request that day off of work. She insisted I was her son’s new public defender.

It didn’t take me long to realize what was happening. Years ago, indigent defense contract work was a key component in our business model. People don’t line up to retain lawyers in their mid-twenties with about ten seconds of experience. Not if the lawyers are honest, that is. Contract work builds experience and helps during lean months.

Though I’ve tried very hard to phase out indigent defense contracts as part of my practice, I haven’t been terribly successful. Telling contract administrators I won’t accept any new appointments seems to do exactly the opposite of what you’d expect. Playing hard to get really drives ’em wild, I guess.

In all honestly, I’ll probably always accept the occasional appointment. When someone contacts me asking if I’ll take an interesting case in a new area of law for a guaranteed fee, it’s tough to say no. Having first done cases like homicides and wiretap cases through contracts, I can’t imagine doing one for a private client first. How would I know what fee to quote? Having the government on the hook for a set hourly rate makes for a financially risk-free opportunity to find out just how much time it takes to properly prepare to cross-examine a medical examiner or review a stack of affidavits for necessity or authorization motions. Some cases are just different, and most private clients aren’t willing to pay by the hour.

Back to the distressed mother, I could tell I had probably been appointed to represent her son. First, she was calling my cell phone. Find me online or through a referral, and you’ll probably only have my office number. Every client, whether private or appointed, gets my cell number. Second, she had that sound of mistrust in her voice that tells me she thinks I’m just another part of the system that’s going to harm her child. Her story also sounded all too common.

Her son had an actual public defender at the pre-indictment stage, and she forgot to tell him his preliminary hearing would be vacated because the state was taking the matter to a grand jury for an indictment. He took off work for the vacated prelim and sat around all day for nothing. His job had a strict policy limiting absences during a set period, and the arraignment the court set after the indictment came down fell just within a period in which he’d already taken off too many days for court. One more would be immediate cause for termination.

The poor client and his mother frantically called the public defender but couldn’t get through to anyone. I know for a fact that particular public defense office has a seemingly infinite phone tree designed to never let you through to a living, breathing, human being and to promptly hang up on you if you hit the wrong number at any point. It’d be easier for the client and his mom to get President Obama on the phone and ask for some help.

I probably would’ve rejected that particular appointment under any other circumstances, but he had a problem and knew I could help him. I confirmed the appointment with the agency that appointed me, but nothing in the court record showed I was in fact the lawyer.

I called the court to let them know what I was going to do, as moving to continue an arraignment is fairly unusual in that jurisdiction. I called her son’s job to verify her story. I had to coordinate with both to get a new arraignment date that would not only work for the court, but also save him his job. After a few more calls to get a prosecutor on board, I filed the motion, making sure one copy went straight to the arraignment calendar judicial assistant so the judge would see it before the end of the day.

I got confirmation that my motion was granted just in time to tell my client’s mom her son wouldn’t have to tell his boss he’d miss work and lose his job. Her response was something like this:

Oh. Okay. By the way, I think we may hire a street lawyer. He really should have an attorney represent him. It is his life, you know.

In all, I killed a decent-sized chunk of time I didn’t really have to spare. I had to work that much later that day to get all of my other things done. I sure would’ve loved to have instead spent that time relaxing on a couch at Starbucks with a nice, hot, cappuccino while writing a blog post about something exciting. Or maybe not. I’m probably just dreaming.

I’d be lying if I didn’t admit I was frustrated and that, for me, the best possible outcome might actually be if he hires a “street lawyer.” The type of case falls under the $846.00 flat fee section of the county’s schedule of fees. If he hires someone else right away and I get to keep the check, I’ll at least end up having made about what I would have made had I billed the same amount of time on one of my private cases. In reality, however, if he does hire another lawyer, the county will probably send the check but demand I return some of it because I was relieved so early in the representation.

If he doesn’t get a new lawyer, I’ll inevitably end up putting a massive amount of work into the case for a meager and totally insufficient fee while feeling generally undervalued by everyone involved. On top of that, the county is actually quite likely to refuse to pay me altogether because of the circumstances. Filing a motion prior to the county making me the attorney of record in the case makes it look like I was privately retained. I may really have to fight for that tiny, tiny little check. If I didn’t have a healthy private practice, there’s no way I could afford to handle his case even for the whole amount.

Why do it then? Why help out? It’s not like I have any spiritual beliefs that make me believe I’m earning points toward any kind of eternal reward, and even if I did, moving some guy’s arraignment a couple days surely wouldn’t mean much of anything in the grand scheme of things. I didn’t cure cancer, I filed one little motion. I didn’t learn anything new by doing what I did. I didn’t refine some skill or even make a new connection, and if I wasn’t writing about it, the whole scenario would be forever out of sight and out of mind. I just helped a nice lady and her son, two people who may never believe I’m actually a licensed attorney. Because I might get paid, I can’t even call it pro bono.

I’m left with nothing more than a little bit of satisfaction knowing that I did a good deed that I didn’t have to do. I picked this job because the system is cold and cruel and I believe the people caught up in it deserve to have someone fight for them. I should act accordingly, and not only when there’s some underlying selfish reason for doing it. It’s easy to persuade myself writing this after the fact, but it’s harder to have that perspective when you’re actually doing thankless work.

In the end, that’s why situations like this make me admire the public defenders out there. I just get a little taste of what many of them have to endure day in and day out. I deal with it once in a great while and wonder why I bother doing good deeds in the first place. I have nothing but respect for the ones who not only do it, but do it right. It really is an inspiration.

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4 Responses to "Clients, Contracts, and Good Deeds"

  1. Matt Brown says:

    Not much you can do, sadly, aside from trying to keep them updated and remaining easily available via phone during the time they’re supposed to call and confirm.

  2. Algernon says:

    As someone who may have been a public defender, possibly for the very agency to which you refer, let me note that I spend an enormous amount of time attempting to explain to my clients what a preliminary hearing is, and its contingent nature. The problem here is that we work in a system designed under 18th century notions of propriety and due process, notions that no one in the modern system is willing to make a reality. If a client comes to me, charged with anything other than a class six felony, it is virtually guaranteed that any prelim will be vacated. But can I tell them that? No, for our system, charged as it is with notions of justice, and fairness before the law, is utterly unwilling to admit in any public forum that it sees my client as little more than the proverbial ham sandwich that an grand jury will indict. I tell clients that the prelim will almost certainly be cancelled, that they should call me sometime after noon the day before the the scheduled day to see if the hearing will go or not. But since the state has the discretion to vacate that hearing literally the goddamn minute before it happens, exactly what am I, as a well meaning public defender, to do?

  3. Andrew (the other one) says:

    I wonder where so many clients (and their families) get this obsession with street lawyers. Perhaps there are commercials or advertisements I’m not aware of where certain lawyers play up their street credentials.

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