Law in Contemporary Society
I came to law school to work with poor clients, help them navigate the legal system, and fight for their rights. I want to base my career on doing direct legal services, most likely as a public defender. I also admire Robinson of Robinson's Metamorphosis in many ways. He is an immensely capable attorney, with a strong knowledge of how the law works, and a creative way of applying it. At the same time, he does not lose focus on the social consequences of his actions and his clients' behavior. However, because of the way the criminal justice system is set up in America, I can neither completely meet my pre-law school expectations nor the ideal of Robinson. Yet I still have hope I can lead a fulfilling career as a public defender.

Public Defenders' Caseloads

Many public defenders do not have enough time to spend on their cases. The ABA (in the 1970's) recommended that attorneys handle no more than 150 felony cases per year, although an updated recommendation based on the increased complexity of criminal cases would be lower. Most public defenders handle many more than that, some even spending on average as little as 7 minutes per case. Perhaps in part because of the limited time public defenders can spend on their cases, more than 90% of defendants in the United States plead guilty before trial. There can be a number of extremely negative consequences to pleading guilty to a crime, such as deportation and losing the right to vote, own a firearm, hold office, or serve on a jury. In many ways the legal system, especially for poor people, is a losing game. Even getting arrested can be bad news. Most people feel an injustice, guilty or not, when they are accused of a crime, taken to jail, booked, processed, and forced to pay legal fees. By the time a lawyer gets involved, the client has already had the power of the state used against him. Even in the best case scenario, where he is found not guilty and is acquitted, he has lost money, time, and reputation.

Public Defenders Can Meet Neither Robinson's Ideals Nor my Own Pre-Law Goals

If I am going to pursue a career as a public defender and feel satisfied, I can neither fully emulate Robinson nor fully fulfill my pre-law school goals. Obviously there are ways of structuring settlement deals and plea bargains to best benefit my clients, and I am sure Robinson would be able to do that effectively. He would probably know the prosecutors and judges, and recognize when to advise clients that their best route is a guilty plea. However, I really doubt that someone as outcome-focused as Robinson is going to improve his clients' sense of whether or not justice was served, except at the margins. This is in part because most of them will end up behind bars anyway, and in part because they are getting screwed over even if they do not.

I also will not be able to perform the pseudo-social worker job I envisioned for myself coming into law school, easing clients' lives while they deal with something largely out of their hands. Only shepherding clients through the criminal process nicely is playing into the system that disempowered them in the first place. By not focusing on the results of the case as Robinson does, and instead merely worrying about my clients' feelings and building positive emotional bonds, I am little more than a benevolent prison guard. Even if I ignore the fact that this kind of outlook would be morally wrong, I quite simply will not get enough time to spend with my clients to affect them on a personal level. Because of the way our justice system is structured, public defenders are not able to spend large amounts of time with their clients.

Possibilities for my Future Career

Looking ahead, I can take away general ideas from both Robinson and my pre-law school expectations. I can both be outcome-focused and try to improve my clients' perceptions of their experiences in the criminal justice system. This is really just being a "good" public defender, doing what is best for my client in an unjust system, and letting them feel empowered to the greatest extent possible. Despite this they will almost universally come out of their experience in a worse situation than they went in. Plus, many have already been arrested and will get arrested again, regardless of what I do.

I unfortunately do not have a solution for the greater problem of overworked public defenders or for the fact that the justice system in many parts of the US functions to oppress poor, black, and brown people. But public defenders are not universally resigned to a passive fate. For example, the New Orleans Public Defender's Office stopped accepting cases because its staff is underfunded and overburdened. It is being partially-voluntarily sued by the ACLU, with the hope that Louisiana will have to better fund it. I also saw that office's chief defender speak a few weeks ago at Columbia, and he talked about the ways the attorneys in his office have been able to change court practices to better defend their clients. All of this is to say that I can at least try to practice public defense by being outcome-focused on the one hand, while at the same time keeping an eye towards who my clients are and how I can best serve their interests outside of their particular criminal case.

The draft is much improved by the effort to check aspirations against realities. You are now writing about what it feels like to learn, at the broadest level, about the forms of practice you want to have. You could ask how being a salaried public defender differs from being a private defense practitioner with a substantial CJA practice: whether a different socio-economic mix in the client base and a different "business model" in your own practice would allow you to do more of what you want, or not.

Of course you do not have solutions to the ills of "the system" of criminal justice. Almost all rational well-informed observers of the system I know would describe the things we should do and the things we can politically and socially achieve as mutually incongruent. You aren't in law school in order to make magical policy choices that will solve problems those closer to the earth don't believe can be solved given the realities with which we live. You are studying the system, learning to get results for the people it processes, building a network of people who can help you get results, and the clients for whom to get them. You are considering whether to begin as a salaried public worker in the part of the system politics is least likely to resource adequately. This is a good start.

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r5 - 29 May 2016 - 14:11:18 - EbenMoglen
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