When I started work as a public defender, I felt myself an outsider. I was viewed with suspicion by many of my colleagues. They were almost always local people who had attended local colleges and law schools. My Ivy League background and my recent relocation to New York City were not considered pluses. Out of the hundreds of attorneys, only a handful had attended an elite law school as I had. Many assumed that I was a dilettante who could not do the work. But the duties suited me.
We did not operate in teams as was done in other public defender offices where I later worked. In New York, an individual attorney, with little oversight, represented clients, and I operated best in this kind of environment. While I learned to discuss difficult cases with others, no authority told me what to do, which, given my anti-authoritarian nature, suited me just fine.
The job required being able to take individual responsibility. I am not a fighter by nature. I seldom initiate a confrontation, but when I am cornered, I am a battler. Basically, a public defender spends a career being cornered, and I was surprisingly good in those situations. I soon had the respect of my colleagues. I truly liked and respected most of the people I worked with. They were good attorneys.
I also learned a lot and not just about how to be a lawyer. I gained knowledge about lives I would not have otherwise encountered. Much of it was ugly stuff, and I had to find ways to cope with that. Sometimes, for example, I would meet clients hours after they were arrested, and they were going through drug withdrawal, which was awful to see. Even now, many years later, I can’t watch a depiction of that in a movie or on TV. When I left the work, I wanted to leave behind the encounters with violence, dysfunctional families, and hopeless alcoholics. I did not want to bring those memories into the rest of my life, but that has not always been an easy task.
The difficulty in separating out the public defender work from the rest of my life was there even while doing the work. I cultivated the mental habit of being a careful listener, cataloging and putting into the memory bank what I had been told. The instinct was to be suspicious of every assertion, and I remembered when a client, a cop, a prosecutor, or a judge told me something that was different from what the person had said two weeks or two months previously. Such an inconsistency was hoarded because it might be valuable down the road in defending the indigent. But this habit could become second nature and be carried over into “normal” life, and being immediately suspicious of what friends, family, and other loved ones said is not a particularly good way to operate in regular life.
We defenders also easily fell into stereotyping victims and defendants. For example, we would say that blacks used guns, Italians knives, and Irish fists. Orthodox Jews committed crimes with pens—various kinds of fraud—or unorthodox sex crimes, such as inserting a key into a young girl’s vagina to “unlock” her. Gypsies (no Roma for us) and Russians were incapable of telling the truth. And many more.
I would like to think that such stereotyping did not affect me when representing the individual client, but I know that I operated on ethnic and other stereotypes in jury selection. Common wisdom was gleaned from other attorneys. For example, try to exclude a black juror born in the West Indies if a black born in the South was on trial. These stereotypes went beyond the racial and ethnic. I had assumptions about the kind of person who would live in certain neighborhoods or hold particular jobs that affected the use of my peremptory challenges. Once again, I did not want all this typing of groups to invade the rest of my life.
Manipulation also became second nature. Can I maneuver the prosecutor or judge into a better deal for my client? But also, can I manipulate, or more neutrally, convince my client into seeing that a particular plea bargain is not only a good one, but the best he is going to get? Of course, there is manipulation in everyday life, but it is not the constant that it was in criminal defense work.
Indeed, the contrast between my work life and my other experiences was often jarring. The spouse was studying and training to become a neurobiologist at Cornell and Columbia medical schools. Her mentors were M.D.’s who lived in fancy apartments and townhouses, and many of her colleagues were also medical doctors pulling down nice salaries, while she and I could barely make ends meet. Sometimes I would go straight from work to a Park Avenue party, and the disparity between the two was almost incomprehensible. I was no more than five or ten miles from the courts and my clients’ neighborhoods, but it was worlds apart. I did not talk much about my work at these gatherings because I did not feel it could be grasped by the partygoers just as those I represented could not have comprehended the lives of these doctors and scientists.
We defenders shared two mechanisms for coping with the work. The first was the more frequent and more creative use of “motherfucker” than even David Mamet could envision. The second was laughter. We all learned to tell jokes about the stuff we saw and did, jokes we knew could not be shared with others outside of our work. Jokes were made about almost anything and was the first reaction to nearly everything.
I remember only one time when we all felt that a joke could not cover the pain of what we experienced, and no one uttered a quip. Other attorneys and I were listening to a tape from a recorder worn by an undercover officer who was in a housing project corridor to make a drug buy. We knew what had happened, but it was still startling to hear the cop’s voice as he recognized a high school classmate as the seller from whom he was to make the buy. We then heard the officer yell, “Don’t shoot! Don’t shoot!” The classmate had realized that his once-friend was now with the police and had pulled out a .357 magnum. We heard the shot which reverberated in the narrow hallway. We knew that the officer was hit. We could then barely hear his pleading voice get the words out again, “Don’t shoot.” Then we heard another shot which hit the cop in the chest right next to the recorder. We could hear the chilling sound of blood and air being sucked in and out of the gaping wound. And then the tape fell quiet. We public defenders looked at each other in silence. Even we couldn’t joke about what we had just heard.
That incident aside, however, I don’t think I ever laughed as much as when I was a public defender.