A Game of Chance and Crawdads

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.

I responded:

In Georgia, eating crawdads and drinking beer. Saw your email. Opened. Too many words. Closed it and had another beer. Words to live by.

He replied:

 Crawdads and beer definitely better than my email.

No question.

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.

19 comments on “A Game of Chance and Crawdads

  1. Scott Key

    Glad you and Dr. SJ enjoyed crawdads on the pier at the Island Club. And GACDL was happy to have you with us this weekend. Come back soon.

  2. PaulaMarie Susi

    Words to live, truly live, by. I’ll buy your next beer.
    (and just “just another lawyer” my friend, not at all).

  3. bill

    The past thing you probably want is to meet commenters in person..if you’re inclined amd ever head to the islands around Charleston, sc, or Key Biscayne fl, dinner is on me (having a drink would be nice, but it’d be cool to just buy some good guys/gals dinner no “lets meet up ” strings attached

    1. SHG Post author

      On the contrary. I think every commenter here should buy me a good dinner of the finest local cuisine and a beer. Maybe even a wine, but that might be pushing it. Thanks, Bill.

      1. Brett Middleton

        Heh. Now that I know you get down to GA on occasion, swing by Athens sometime and you’ve got it. Wine, too, if that’s your preference. Heck, bring your dog and I’ll promise to keep my feet to myself.

      2. Chris Ryan

        If you ever find yourself out this way (Sacramento, CA), I would be happy to buy you dinner and pick your brain.

      3. david

        Brisbane, Queensland, Australia. Got a couple of great steak and seafood places, but my personal favourite is a Provencal place run by an erratic Frenchman. Normally i consider the French a bunch of cheese-eating surrender monkeys, but this guy can cook. If you’re ever in the antipodes . . .

        1. SHG Post author

          Being a “cheese-eating surrender monkey” and cooking well are not mutually exclusive. In fact, they mesh quite nicely.

  4. Michael Malone

    Every new Teacher, Waitress, Bartender, and anyone else who ends up dealing with the whole range of society potentially at there worse should read this and take it to heart. Great message, thanks.

  5. John Barleycorn

    Keep chilling on your toes and enjoy the weather always…its a big bad world out there that is best digested one bit at a time.

    All good things…

    Always take the needed time.

  6. Robert Wildridge

    I agree with what you say. Difficult not to get jaded. But I’ve been at this business for forty years and I’m still naïve enough to believe it’s the best mankind has come up with, for all its flaws. So, while I take my beer and crawdads, I also hope and believe we can improve it one small step at a time. Thankless job, yes. But somewhere the Gods of Justice must smile, even if wryly, to know we’re striving to make it better.

    1. SHG Post author

      I’m disinclined to embrace mantras like “it’s the best,” etc., but that doesn’t mean that we don’t keep trying to make the Gods of Justice smile every day, no matter how mean-spirited they may be.

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