In my first blog I briefly mentioned that it is not the public defender’s job to justify our client’s illegal actions, but rather to make sure the state is not taking advantage of them. Once I learned this I began feeling as though I was making positive impacts in people’s lives, rather than negative impacts to public safety as I feared I might. Since then I haven’t had any moral qualms about the work I am doing, and I have learned to see the clients I work with as people, rather than just their criminal charges. My inside view has given me a chance to examine the criminal justice system, giving me a new perspective on it as well as the people inside of it.
I have learned that a large part of my job is compartmentalizing my opinions and working to help our clients in the best way I can in a way that upholds the system, however I may feel about the it as a whole. In my position I have had the opportunity to hear both the prosecutor’s and the client’s points of view, and I have learned to understand both. On the one hand, our clients break the law, and often make little attempt to do what the court requires them to do in order to get out of the system. On the other hand, our clients often don’t have the financial means to do what they are supposed to do, such as paying fines, and come from families and communities where crime is not as stigmatized as it is in other places. In the eyes of the law, these people deserve to be punished, and I understand that, but I often find it hard not to be sympathetic as a fellow human being.
That being said, there are some clients who I have a hard time being sympathetic with at all. Although most of the clients that I work with are very nice, some of them are belligerent and deceitful, despite the fact that I am just trying to help them. Rather than get upset, I have learned not to take these interactions personally and instead see the dark humor in them. Here are some of my favorite examples:
- I have had clients show up saying they have no idea what they did or why they are in court that day, and then become upset with me when I explain to them their charges.
- I have had clients fail to mention their other pending cases or past charges during my interview with them, leaving the attorney blindsided when the prosecutor or judge mentions them at the stand.
- I have had clients call me a “bad intern,” a “trash attorney” and a “public pretender.”
- And I have had clients yell that they “did not hire me for this treatment,” even though they are only assigned to a public defender when they cannot afford outside legal representation.
When I take these conversations with a grain of salt, I can see the clients are just angry about the system and the position they are in, and not me personally. Although that is no excuse, I can empathize and understand the dark humor in the client’s actions, which allows me to continue treating them with respect even when they are less than respectful towards me, and most importantly continue to enjoy my internship.