Friday, January 1, 2010

2009: A Review

2009 was my first complete year as a solo practitioner. It was also my first year doing only criminal defense. As I have written, when I hung out my shingle I had no intention of doing criminal work. In fact, I hadn't even thought about it. Workers' compensation litigation was what I knew and personal injury looked familiar enough to give it a go.

That was the plan. But like so many plans, something else happened. In the military I learned that any good plan should be flexible. It should allow for instant changes in response to unforeseen events during the execution phase. But that's not what happened to me. I abandoned my original plan in favor of one scratched in the dirt.

Essentially two reasons led me to where I am. First I had no money coming in doing the civil work. Sadly, I didn't even have any real clients. The referral base I thought existed was nothing but an illusion created by my naive sense of optimism. Second, was the successful argument of my first criminal motion. The first real case of any kind I accepted was a felony theft in Kane county. This was completely by chance. At the time I thought I was doing someone a favor. But in reality the favor was done for me. The motion of which I write was a simple motion for bond reduction. But something happened that day. My appetite for criminal defense work was revealed. I found a purpose.

As 2009 began I felt for the first time in my life I was doing what I was supposed to do. Everything about my past prepared me for this work. Growing up in a predominately African-American, low income neighborhood allows me to genuinely understand and care. My time in the U.S. Army infantry schooled me in firearms, taught me self-discipline and how to properly behave around those in authority.  And my science based undergraduate work allows me to digest forensics easily. I also have familiarity with street drugs and more importantly the drug market. I know how corners run and how money and dope are moved.

Where I grew up is probably the reason I am defense oriented. Most people are usually one way or the other naturally. A lot of my colleagues are former prosecutors that have switched. It would be great to believe one day they woke up and felt compelled to do defense work. The reality, however, is the move is almost universally financially motivated. And it's clear. You cannot fake caring.

Going into 2009 I felt caring too much might cause me grief. I couldn't figure out how to keep some cases from getting to me. That trick still evades me. By nature I have a very big heart. I want to help those in need. Because of this, there were many miserable times in 2009. Often I couldn't hit the game winning home run in the bottom of the 9th. Looking at strike 3 in the last out of the game can really cause self-doubt in one's abilities. Plus, the fans go home with a terrible feeling of emptiness. They will cringe the next time I am at bat with the game on the line. Once a failure, always a failure. But as I always have in life when knocked down and run over, I get back up. There is no quitting. It's not ego that drives me, it's pride. The character Marcellus Wallace said in the movie Pulp Fiction "Pride never helps, it only hurts." The jury is still out on the pride issue.

There are 39 felony trial courtrooms for the city of Chicago. Each courtroom has up to a few hundred open cases at any time. That is a massive number. The county jail has about 12,000 guests and there are close to 1,000 new felony arrests per week just in the city. The Cook County criminal justice system employs a ton of people.

If you want to be a criminal defense attorney and get your hands dirty, this is the place to be. My cases are almost entirely street crimes: drugs, guns, shootings, robberies, burglaries, and even a couple murders. About half of the weekly felony arrests are drug related. Chicago's lower income areas can be very violent. Gangs are everywhere. My work is not a movie, television, or novel. But at times I have to pinch myself because it can seem like one.

I can't think of any other area in the United States where I would have gotten as much experience as I have here in such a short time. And right now I have the luxury of only taking cases I want. I have turned down numerous minor traffic, DUI's, domestic, and sex cases.

Again peering back into early 2009, I didn't know was how many guns are here in Chicago. I didn't know that in some areas kids start carrying them as young as 13. And often pistols are not carried to intimidate, but for self-defense. Fist fights in the streets are rare, but shootings happen all day, every day. Cops get shot, kids get shot, and the elderly get shot too. There is a handgun ban in the city of Chicago that makes it illegal to own one (with very few law enforcement exceptions).

Somehow despite this city ordinance, pistols seem to grow from trees. A 16 year old can get a gun easier than a beer or a pack of smokes. I know people who have traded a bag of weed for a gun. $50.00 will get you a .38, bullets included. Most of the guns are unregistered or stolen. And I find it strange that some young prosecutors don't know the difference between a revolver and a semi-automatic. I didn't believe that statement could be true in a city with so much street crime. But, it is true. I have witnessed proof of it.

While all of these shootings are going on in Chicago, the 2nd Amendment folks are trying to get a suit challenging the gun ordinance in front of the U.S. Supreme Court. Personally, I don't care. I have no problem with responsible, non-felons having pistols in their homes. From where I sit, this ordinance is meaningless and in practice is rarely enforced anyway. It's simply another rotten fruit hanging from a withering tree of politics that people are fighting over. People fight and shoot each other over truly stupid things.

The pistols on our streets are not being acquired legally. Therefore, the laws governing purchases and ownership of them are ineffective. The Brady bill is nothing but a hurdle that one can limbo under. I think most handguns are probably purchased out of state by various means and imported in. And much like drugs, the supply and market find each other in the streets. For all of its allure and beauty, our windy city on the lake is violent as all hell. Compounding the problem is that many residents, and especially the suburbanites, have no clue what lurks. The people who have the power to make change are largely in the dark. Or they have read about it, but have never seen it up close. NIMBY...Not In My Back Yard.

This past summer there was a string of strong armed robberies on the city's north side. The street crime on the north side is very minimal. Residents of Lincoln Park, Lakeview, and other neighborhoods lost their minds. I witnessed angry rhetoric aimed at everyone from the mayor to local beat cops. People really thought the Chicago Police Department was inept because an immediate arrest wasn't made. And with every robbery came more anger. But the anger was driven by fear because the suspect was black. A black man robbing white people in a white neighborhood causes quite an uproar. And trust me, White Flight still has a strong pulse.

The racist comments left on the Sun Times and Tribune's websites were troubling. I guess racism is so deep-seeded in American culture it's never going to go away in my lifetime. A 1/2 black President has helped. But let's face it in too many areas of society, minorities are still seen as sub par. And it's still worse in the south. Although I don't know it as fact, I bet there are still hangings in the former confederacy.

A disturbing but constant belief in many circles is that blacks and Hispanics are more prone to crime than whites. Let's examine this a bit. Crime is higher in lower income areas. That's a fact. In Chicago, blacks and Hispanics predominately populate these areas. That's also a fact. But the conclusion that by nature blacks and Hispanics are more likely to be criminals, fails.

If you put white people in poverty there is crime too. Ever watch an episode of Cops? But in Chicago, there are no areas in the city where poor white people dominate the populace. Thus, most of those arrested are blacks and Hispanics because the crime is in their neighborhoods. Well, except for this north side robbery thing. And that's what freaked people out. The fear of crime spilling over into the good areas of town was too much. I can't imagine what Wrigleyville would look like if there were regular (or even one) drive-by shootings after a Cub's game. On the south side drive-by shootings after high school sporting events are frequent.

The north side is a world away from the south and west sides. I live in the north side. It is because I am racist? No. It's simply safer. I don't want to hear gunshots and sirens all night. I don't want to see people loitering on corners sipping cheap wine from brown bags. I want a clean neighborhood with nice businesses. And I like watching people walk their dogs.

Whereas I have a choice of where to live, most do not. I feel for the folks that cannot move somewhere safer or nicer. I am in those neighborhoods and homes on a daily basis. I am constantly reminded of where I come from. At times I feel home there. But I also appreciate how far I have come and take nothing I have for granted. I will forever be thankful for every favor, stroke of good luck, blessing, and act of help that came my way. I had to join the military to afford my higher education and I was in school for almost a decade. I studied for and took more exams than I care to remember. On a side note, my 2nd semester organic chemistry mid-terms made anything I saw in law school seem like a joke. The Bar exam, too, pales in comparison.

But even with all the hard work I had to put in to get me where I am today, I had a lot of good fortune along the way. A lot of people helped out and trust me, they know who they are because I tell them regularly.

Sitting here looking at the tail end of 2009, I wonder what, if anything, have I accomplished in this first year? I kept some people from going to prison and a few of them were actually innocent. That's nice. I negotiated shorter prison sentences for others. My little practice was very profitable but on a small scale. I made enough in fees to keep operating in horrible economic times. And almost all of my earnings came from the poorest areas of the city. Affordability has been my niche. What I lack in trial experience I make up for with customer service.

My greatest accomplishment this year is showing people I care. In a system that's overburdened and under served, it's not hard to stand out. I stood out by going to people's homes, meeting the family, listening to the problems, and offering to help when I could. I never oversold myself or promised anything but to do my best. And I think that's what people wanted. There must be piece of mind in knowing at least one person is on your side. In 2009, I was often that person.

Looking ahead to 2010, the only difference I see from 2009 is more jury trials. The crimes will be the same. The courthouses the same. The judges the same. And my clients will come from the same neighborhoods.

In conclusion, 2009 was an amazing learning experience in and out of the courtroom. I became a better lawyer everyday just by doing the work. But along the way I became a better person. The profitability of  2009 cannot be measured in dollars alone. The hugs from happy mothers and grandmothers have to enter the calculus.

While I may not have a lot of money, 2009 was a good year for payments in appreciation, acknowledgment, and thanks. I may not be able to afford a BMW or Mercedes, but I am still rich.


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