Thursday, May 5, 2011

Lessons From The Terminator on the Court Appointed List

We all know that lawyers have gleefully been cast as the villains of the piece for centuries—although I would like to extend a personal thank you to bankers for taking some of the heat off lately.  Trying to change the tide of opinion of lawyers is a fruitless endeavor and I rarely attempt fruitless endeavors—oh, who am I kidding—I am the Queen of fruitless endeavors.

I’m sure most of you have watched enough television to know that pro bono work is work that a lawyer performs for a client without fee.  It is strongly suggested that an attorney perform a certain percentage of pro bono work every year.  Let me clarify that when I say pro bono work, I’m not talking about work that an attorney undertakes for a fee, does a bang-up job on and is then stiffed on the bill (grrrrrrrr).  No, pro bono work is work undertaken with a charitable heart.

...and then there is court appointed work...

Technically, court appointed work isn’t pro bono because it does pay a wee teeny tiny little bit—but it is fast becoming disguised pro bono work with the legislature’s drunken hacking away at the Indigent Defense Services budget.  Believe it or not, I actually love doing court appointed work because it is one of the very few areas of the law where I occasionally feel like I make a difference and—let’s face it—it’s work that stays interesting.

I can’t speak for every lawyer out there, but a big heaping pile of attorneys sign up for the court appointed list when they enter the practice of law.  Enlistment certainly isn’t for wealth or fame, but it is the best way that a new attorney can get trial experience.  It’s akin to the immersion method being the best way to learn a foreign language.

Some lawyers stay on the court appointed list and some move on when they realize that they are being absurdly masochistic.  My dad says that he went off the list when the indigents started driving better cars than his.  You may laugh, but I’m sad to report that such things can be true. 

Do you want to see me ticked off to the ends of the earth?  Send an indigent client into my office and, as we near the completion of the appointment, have them whip out a roll of $100 bills nearly bigger than a man’s fist as they say, “Now, I know you’re a free attorney [no, actually, I’m not], but I can give you a little something here to make sure you do a good job for me.”

That is just so insulting on so very many levels.  Of course, it’s totally crappy and immoral for one to get a court appointed attorney when one can obviously make a sizeable cash down payment on a five bedroom, six bathroom home with a pool.  There are people who don’t even have two nickels to rub together who really need a court appointed attorney and Daddy Warbucks is sitting in my office throwing cash around like Monopoly money.  It is a disgusting sight.

Yes, the lying about money is awful, but do you want to know what really grates my cheese?  The nerve of someone to sit in my office chair and insinuate that I won’t do the same job for them as I do for my paying clients just because I’ve been appointed to their case.  I will have you know that I do an equally crappy job for everyone I represent.  Yeah, just kidding—I dare say that, when I look back over my career thus far, the majority of cases that I poured blood, sweat and tears into were indigent appointments.

Of course, my approach with court appointed clients has evolved over the years.  I’ll admit that, in the beginning, I babied them a little too much.  It was beyond my comprehension that someone would ask for a court appointed attorney and never make contact with them.  It was baffling to get to court only to find out that, not only had my client not contacted me, they weren’t present for their court date either.  I told myself that it was miscommunication and I would continue the case...and continue and continue and continue until they still hadn’t showed up and the Assistant District Attorney wouldn’t let me continue it anymore.

Then, I got pregnant.  That meant I was going to be on maternity leave for about 6 weeks and that meant Dad had to handle my court appointed cases while I was gone.  Dad moved on from the Land of the Court Appointed a long time ago and he didn’t have much patience when he was on the indigent list, so his patience was a non-entity by the time he had to step in and back me up.

Accordingly, Operation “I’m Your Court Appointed Attorney, Not Your Court Appointed Babysitter” was born.  Gone were the days that my clients could sleep their court days away without recrimination.  Yep, if they didn’t answer up at calendar call, their case was left in the bucket and a warrant for their arrest was issued for their failure to appear.  Furthermore, their attorney withdrew from representation. 

Oh yeah, when I got back to work, my clients all but threw me a tickertape parade. 

The thing is, when returned, I surveyed what had been wrought by SEC (that’s what we call him in the office) and managed to see the beauty of its simplicity.  I was driving myself crazy trying to remind my clients of court dates that they knew perfectly well and I was bending over backwards to get things put off for no particular reason for people who couldn’t care less.

Yep, The Terminator (as he came to be known by my clients) did some serious spring cleaning on my court appointed list.  It lightened my load in more ways than one:  I dropped a lot of the dead ends that I had been stringing along from court date to court date and it knocked the rose colored glasses slap off my face.

I learned to do my job, but not get all emotionally involved in the outcome of every case.  Yes, some of my clients did need me, but some were only buying enough time to skip town before their next court date.  Atticus Finch himself could go down in flames at trial with some of the fact patterns that I had to work with.

No, my clients didn’t need a babysitter—they needed an attorney who would help them if they let her.  Some will, some won’t, but I still get to go home at the end of the day knowing that I did the best I could with what I had to work with.  A gal’s gotta sleep at night.

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