In the afternoon, Dr. SJ and I drove over to Jekyll Island, a quaint little place with some beautiful old houses and a pier with a place called “Rah Bar.” We thought it was either a cute name or a Georgian typo. As it turned out, it was both. We ordered clams on the half shell, which appeared cooked, and a plate of crawdads. We also ordered some libation.
As we sat there, discussing the relative virtues of Friedrich Nietzsche and quantum mechanics, an email came from a friend. He was a new lawyer, but not a young one. And he told a story of his frustration and empathy, about how a client was treated fairly by one judge, while another was burned. The idea that it was all so random, so pointless, was breaking his heart. He will remain nameless for now, but can out himself if he wants. I would recommend he keep his identity private, but that’s just me.
In Georgia, eating crawdads and drinking beer. Saw your email. Opened. Too many words. Closed it and had another beer. Words to live by.
Crawdads and beer definitely better than my email.
The short version was: When do we just realize it’s all a game of dice and spend all our days with crawdads and beer instead?
A lot of people ask a variation of this question, which is basically how do we do our job, not go postal, and instead take off our criminal defense lawyer hat, take a deep breath and enjoy life. How do we do that when we are seething with the frustration of a system that treats defendants so callously, so arbitrarily, knowing that as we eat crawdads and drink beer, our clients sit in jails and prisons, suffering for the best system ever?
We’re generally an empathetic bunch. We are close enough to our clients to realize they aren’t animals, characterized only by the worst thing they did. We see humans where everyone else sees only criminals. It’s much easier for the outside world to view our clients like one-dimensional cartoon characters, so that they can punish them without harboring the lingering feeling that they’ve just doomed a good person to a life of misery over one mistake, one bad act, one moment’s weakness.
But we get frustrated that despite our pleas, our stories, our explanations, nobody else seems to get it. Not judges. Not prosecutors. Not the nice guy at the cocktail party. Not even our mother. They may give us a listen, but we know that they aren’t seeing what we see. What the hell is wrong with them?
No doubt plenty of you will have answers, all of which will be as silly and wrong as mine. Nobody gives a damn unless and until something touches their life. Bernie Kerik is a convert to defendants’ rights, now that he’s out of prison. That’s how it happens.
Why? Because society needs to remain blind, deaf and dumb to tolerate a system so fraught with gaps, error, irrationality and arbitrariness that, if they really paid attention and cared, would make them nuts. The system seems so much better if you don’t pay close attention. Making sausage too.
And that’s where the crawdads and beer come in. It does neither us nor our clients any good to go nuts over the pathetic reality of our system. We may feel the frustration, and the feeling is very well warranted, but to dwell on it serves no purpose.
Remember what we do: we get our butt kicked up, down and sideways, and the next morning, go back into the trenches to do it all over again. Every once in a while, we save someone. Every once in a while, someone listens to our argument and we win. Sometimes it’s a big win, a two-word verdict and our client gets to see his children again rather than cinderblock walls for the rest of his life. They hug us, but thank some deity who’s not admitted to practice law, and walk away.
This is the life we chose. To fight for the people society despises, and needs to despise so that they can sleep at night.
When we walk out of court, close the last file for the day, and stroll outside in the twilight, we need to live as well. We are the advocates for these defendants, but we are not the defendant. We aren’t their family, their mothers, wives or children. We sometimes forget that we’re just lawyers, because we want to help people so badly that we start to believe we can do more.
Be very careful of the delusion that we have super powers that should enable us to make the deaf hear and the blind see. Our job is to work within this awful system, filled with callous and arbitrary people who do not care about our clients. Our job is to do our absolute best to make the law happen, despite what they are trying to do to our clients. And when we fail, our job is to try again.
But in between, the evenings and weekends, the vacations if you can take one, let it go. Letting the frustration and empathy build until it feels like it’s going to explode will ruin you, burn you out. Expecting your friends and family to get it, to comfort you, is foolish.
Let it go. You have to or your head will explode, and that just leaves a terrible mess and does no one any good. As you were frustrated, I was eating crawdads and drinking a beer. Tomorrow, I’ll be back to work and so will you. I will be refreshed and ready to fight all over again. You need to do the same.