Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Real Lawyer?

Met with a 19 year old today who is confronted with a choice: plead to a charge that he’ll likely win at trial or wait for two months to take his case before a jury. The story he told me, about joining a gang as a kid when his family wasn’t there, and then finding out that only a few of this new “family” was true to him, was terribly sad. He described “taking a charge” for two felons after being pulled over in a car with a gun under the seat. Since he wasn’t a felon, taking the hit for them gave him some cool points and saved them from going to back to prison.

My wish would be to take the case to trial, but I’m not the one who has to wait it out in a jumpsuit. Still, I try to tell my clients that it’s my job not only to take care of them in the short-term, but also to make sure they’re advised to think about the consequences, in the long term, of another conviction. When I was a Public Defender and a client would ask to come in right away, to plead guilty and thus get an “out date” to visualize, I used to say, “give me a week and I’ll save you a month” or “give me a month and I’ll save you a year” in some circumstances. Put in these terms, it brought home the fact that the certainty they wished for, that drove them crazy in jail, wasn’t something to grab at teh first opportunity. Better to wait until the time was right and claim the type of certainty that not only made you feel better in the short term but also kept you from sitting in jail any longer than necessary.

But who am I to decide? While I tell people whether I think they should go to trial, I always tell them it’s their decision. How easy is it for me to say, “wait in jail for a couple months to go to trial” when I get to walk out of jail and sleep in my own bed that night?

During my first year out of law school, when I was working as a p.d. in misdemeanor court, a client called me with a compliment I’ll never forget. He said, “you’re a real lawyer.” It meant a lot, but it was also a little double edged. What I’d done for him, that made him call me with this compliment, was to assist him in pleading guilty to a charge that he would likely have won at trial. He was simply happy because he’d gotten out of jail before his trial date, which was better that he’d expected. He’d disregarded my advice to go to trial and chosen to admit to a weak charge, being unable to make bond and likely a little nervous about going to trial.

He thought I was a real lawyer not because I fought to take his case to trial, but because I arranged a deal that got him out of jail earlier than he’d expected, but which had also planted yet another charge on his record.

While I was worried about sufficiency of evidence and innocence, he was more concerned with sleeping in his own bed. I couldn’t blame him, but I didn’t feel very “real.”

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