I started out my adult life firmly rooted in the underbelly of society. It seemed a natural fit for me to stay on that side of the tracks even after I became an official member of society.
The Cook County (ie. Chicago) Public Defenders Office is a trip. I loved it. The office has over 500 attorneys. I got hired in a batch of 40. I still remember telling the head of the office at the interview that I wanted to be a ‘soldier in her righteous army‘.
It worked, but really I likely got hired because I did an unpaid internship(for school credit) my 3rd year of law school with the Homicide Task Force. Get your face known, people tend to hire from their own first.
The best part of being hired in a big peer group like that is that you get a built in social circle at the workplace. Having friends at work is priceless, the same thing happened to my wife the year before at her job and we have never been able to recreate the colleague situation at anywhere after that. You never know how good you have it until you don’t.
Public Defenders tend to share an odd duck trait or two, together with a WAY BETTER sense of humor than prosecutors, I enjoyed my work environment.
The actual work was a mixed bag.
What I did not like was the bleak humanism. Everything from the smells to the actual dungeon-like settings. 150 recent arrestees crammed into a holding cell for the weekend waiting to tell you, in between bites of their baloney sandwich, why they don’t deserve to be there is a tedious exercise in patience and understanding.
I do not have a lot of those traits, instead I relied on my efficiency and ability to communicate effectively with fellow criminogenic thinkers. These were by and large, my people.
You can not help but despair at the cattle call nature of our criminal justice process.
That being said, it is kinda remarkable to do the work and to work with those people who are called to defend the accused. It is not for everyone. You need to believe that this is a right and that what you are doing makes a difference.
You can not single handedly fight the Man and all his glory, but you can force everyone to play by the rules. It is that Rule of Law that separates us from the Dark Ages.
The notion of burnout and the fear of becoming too jaded are very real.
Gallows humor and the embracing of low key vices help, but probably can not stave off the eventuality of these creeping side effects. I have always had a healthy mistrust of law enforcement as a youth, this job only deepened that divide. I also gathered concrete examples of why ‘the system‘ sucked and should be railed against.
One benefit to all this was that Public Defenders are definitely more interesting to talk to at parties.
The point in my life when I became a parent had an effect on my attitudes towards work. It became harder for me to set aside any empathy for the victim. Harder to concentrate on the representation of the perpetrator. Much like I imagine it is easier for 19 year old kids to go to war than it is for middle aged fathers.
When the time came to move out of state and find a new job, I decided to switch teams. I did this for 3 reasons;
- Wisdom comes from perspective and perspective comes through balance. I honestly felt that working both sides of the aisle would make me a better lawyer.
- I always thought I would like to be a prosecutor. But only in an office where I had autonomy to make my own calls. Cook County was not that place. Orders came down from the Ivory Tower and politics always mattered.
- The were no cities big enough to have Public Defenders where I was moving. I would never want to be a hired Criminal Defense Attorney. Call it a distinction without a difference if you must. I would defend someone as a constitutional obligation, but not as a hired gun.
Likely, had I stayed in Chicago, I would have finished out my career with the Public Defenders. I was good at it and it felt like a worthy pursuit, Mos Maiorum for sure.
Here is a post comparing my experience as a Prosecutor. A job I ended up doing for almost twice as long.
P.S. Remember we should judge our society not by how we treated the privileged and the talented, but how we treated the lowliest among us.