Monday, August 23, 2010

Compassion and the Criminal Defense Attorney

I am a member of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. The purpose of the organization should be obvious from the name. The NACDL puts on several seminars yearly all across the country and the topics cover all things criminal defense related.

As a paying member, I get the NACDL's monthly journal, The Champion. This month there is an article about compassion and the criminal defense attorney. The article's author says we criminal defense lawyers should generate compassion for our clients.

To me this is a no-brainer. About 10 years ago, I studied Buddhism pretty seriously. I was able to put to practice in my life some of the fundamental concepts of it. According to Buddhism, the most important virtue one can develop is compassion.

What is compassion? Here is a dictionary definition: a feeling of deep sympathy and sorrow for another who is stricken by misfortune, accompanied by a strong desire to alleviate the suffering.

According to this definition, merely recognizing someone has fallen on hard times isn't true compassion. You have to feel it too. And you have to want to help make it better.

Being a criminal defense attorney provides endless opportunities to be compassionate just by doing your job. When I started this job I think I took on too much of my client's angst. It bothered me that innocent people were in the county jail. And it really bothered me when innocent clients went to prison.

But I quickly learned that if I was too compassionate, I wouldn't be able to function. I could lose my objectivity. Not all clients are the same. Not all cases are the same. Some client's situations are more compelling than others. But if they have hired me as their lawyer, they are all asking for my help. They need me. It is my job to help them.

During my first year doing this work, I concluded that my clients and their families wanted one thing more than anything else out of me: they wanted to know I cared. In a system that's overcrowded, unfair, too fast, and unforgiving, they wanted to know the person they hired to be in court, actually cared.

I attribute any success I had initially to the fact that I did and do care. I am not sure I can point to one thing about how I handle a case that shows I care, but the message was received loud and clear.

I spent a lot of time on the phone explaining the felony criminal process to worried mothers, grandmothers, wives, fiances, girlfriends, and sisters. I know I was hired on scores of cases simply because I took the time to listen to and answer their questions. I also went to the homes of most of the callers that hired me. My main motivation to do this was to get paid. That was obvious. But I was told it was impressive that I was willing to drive in and sometimes meet a very extensive family. I also always asked to see a photograph of the person I was being hired to represent.

When I went to the county jail to meet my new client, I can tell it made them feel good when I told them I was just at their house and met their grandmother, etc. Some I think were quite shocked.

This type of client servicing isn't something you can read in a book. It's instinctive. You either do it, or you don't. And in the dawn of my practice when I didn't have a lot of experience, I made up for this deficiency by out-servicing any other attorney out there. As the referrals started to come my way, I knew my work was appreciated. 

I have seen criminal lawyers who clearly don't care. It's quite obvious. You can tell just in the way he or she talks to the client and the family. The people we represent and hire us don't want to be lectured. They want to be listened to. They want to be understood. And they want you to try your hardest to get the best outcome as possible.

It's really that simple.

Is this being compassionate? I don't know. But if you're in this business and have trouble sleeping because you have a client in custody that shouldn't be there, you might be on your way.


1 comment:

  1. Great concept--Amazing coming from a former military hard-ass. I agree that compassion is one of the foundations for successful representation. Good writing today.


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