Dedication Sometimes Means Walking Away

After 13 years as a public defender, Daniel Partain decided he had enough.

Goodbye, Farewell and Amen


It is my last day as a public defender.

His explanation for his decision was somewhat lengthier.

In the almost 13 years of being an attorney, I have been a public defender. While I had my gripes and complains about the day-to-day trials that come with the job, I enjoyed what I did.

Just like the ocean slowly ebbs away the coastline, so did being a public defender to my well-being. I made poor decisions regarding my health, both physical and mental, and I suffered for it. However, a day came where I realized that I needed to take better care of myself, and I started to alter some of my lifestyle choices. While my physical health improved, the diminution of the joy that I had in being a public defender continued to fade away from me. Without warning or great fanfare, one day I woke up, and I started viewing being a public defender as a job, and not as a calling.

To say that the job of public defender, at least if you give a damn, is hard is an understatement. Think of the difficulty of being a criminal defense lawyer, the guy at the bottom of the mountain doomed for eternity to roll a boulder up hill, only to have it roll back down before you reach the top. Then think of Sisyphus with a caseload of hundreds. And many of those cases involving clients who call you “public pretender,” demanding a “real lawyer” rather than you. Such a rewarding experience, right?

Gideon, who continues to push his personal boulder uphill, agrees.

Daniel’s story isn’t unique. Every public defender office and system throughout the country has tales to tell of similar people. Those that “lost it”, or “had a nervous breakdown” and couldn’t handle the work anymore. Those who had to be shifted around into less stressful positions because the job got hold of them and gave them the beating of their life.

Sometimes I wonder, here on this blog and out loud in real life, why we do this. The pay isn’t spectacular – even 30 year veterans who are supervisors make less than first year associates fresh out of law school do at big firms; the day to day drudgery of the work is overwhelming; the rewards are fleeting and far between; the accolades non-existent. Some get shot at, some stabbed, some stalked, some threatened and spat upon – literally and figuratively- and mocked and ridiculed and not always by our clients.

It’s hard to imagine a calling more difficult and less appreciated. Why would anyone subject themselves to a life like this?

It’s a war alright. A war against a system that’s eating itself without realizing. A war against a society that is full of so much hate that it is blind to the devastation it is causing to itself. A war against those that purport to exercise their better judgment for me. A war against a machinery that sees people as cattle, to be branded with the mark and shepherded into dark corners, ignored and forgotten.

It is a war that cannot be won.

And yet they get up every morning, strap on a tie, and fight again. Maybe they will save a life today. Maybe today will be the day when something right happens. If not, then they will be back tomorrow to roll that boulder again.

But for Daniel, it was over. And as much as the toll on his life and health made the choice understandable, he still harbored a lingering fear of being thought of as a quitter.

I know that some will question my dedication to being a criminal defense attorney, after reading this. So be it. To be honest, I do not care. Yet, the point that I was trying to make through this rambling post is this: know when to walk away. Not everyone that becomes a public defender can be a “lifer.” It is okay. This profession is not about you, but serving the needs of your fellow man. It is better that you are honest with yourself than sell your clients short.

Though no one elected me to speak on behalf of the criminal defense bar, this compels me to respond. Your decision to walk away is not a reason to question your dedication. Not at all. While it’s good that you say you don’t care, you do. If you didn’t, you wouldn’t have raised the issue.

But you aren’t a quitter. You fought the battle as long and as hard as you could. You also had the good judgment to realize that there comes a time when you have gone as far as you can go, both for yourself and the people you serve. You aren’t at fault for realizing that the time had come to move on. You aren’t to blame for not being a lifer, the guy who will push the boulder forever. You aren’t really Sisyphus, and you aren’t condemned to do it forever.

Thirteen years is a long time. You gave what you had to give. You sacrificed your health for it. You pushed it as far as you possibly could. You reached the point where you realized it was done, you sacrificed your ego, that thing in your head that pushes you to deny your own reality for the sake of others, for the benefit of your clients. You opened the spot to new blood, new energy, new zeal, to pick up the fight where you left off.

You did right, for yourself and your clients. No one should ever question your dedication to being a criminal defense lawyer. No one has the right. And you, given all you’ve sacrificed up to now, have every right to move on. Amen, brother. And thank you for your dedication and sacrifice.


5 comments on “Dedication Sometimes Means Walking Away

  1. Daniel Partain

    Thank you for your kind words, Scott. It means a lot to me. However, I do not want to leave the wrong impression with you or anyone that reads your post. While I have left the calling of being a public defender, I have not left the calling of being an attorney, and in particular, a criminal defense attorney.

    1. SHG Post author

      I thought you made that pretty clear in your post and the quote used here, but I can understand why you don’t want any misunderstanding.

  2. George B

    As a layman who’s watched/read of the legal world for years; I want to thank you for your efforts. You and your brethren are not just important but rather vital in our jurisprudence arena not being a kangaroo court, one where justice is a prize for the rich.

    I salute you for your courage and your efforts.

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