Are We Making a Difference?

I graduated from law school twenty years ago, and after clerking for a state court appellate judge, I have practiced as a public defender ever since — in both state and federal court, representing both adults and juveniles.  As those of you in the trenches know, the work is not easy, there are very few “wins,” and there is little or no societal (or even professional) recognition for what we do.  Yet, we find ways to keep ourselves going — whether through the support and camaraderie of our colleagues, a strong commitment to defending the underdog, or those infrequent moments when we sense that we just might — maybe, hopefully — be making a difference.

As someone who, among other things, teaches in a law school clinic, I am privileged to work with bright, motivated students and to be in a position to watch them grow as advocates during the course of their representation of children in delinquency court.  Their skills develop, of course, as well as their abilities to analyze cases and statutes, though something else important happens as a result of “experiential” learning — law students develop greater empathy, insight, and maturity during the process of working with children and their families who may be different from them in any number of ways.  So, by semester’s end, it is not unusual for me to receive words and expressions of thanks either directly or via teaching evaluations.

The more difficult question for most practitioners and advocates in the field is whether we are making a difference in the lives of our clients.  Often, the criminal or juvenile matter is but one “problem” facing them amidst a whole spectrum of problems, and it may not even be the one that is the most urgent.  Our clients may be coping with eviction or homelessness, persistent hunger, physical or mental illness, or any number of other crises that outweigh — at least in the moment — the importance of their pending criminal charges.  This reality is compounded by the fact that the resolution of the juvenile case may not, in fact, bring about meaningful closure or affirmation but instead may be just another negative stressor.  So, it is not unusual to ask oneself: as advocates are we merely cogs in a dysfunctional machine or can we take steps to ensure that our clients’ experiences within the juvenile justice system are transformative — or at the very least not harmful and counterproductive?

Here is a recent encouraging email received by two former students of mine from a young person whom they represented in juvenile court several years ago (all identifying information has been removed):

Dear [former law students],

I first spoke to you both as a naïve, young freshman when we met about my court case. Since that memorable experience, I have been able to embrace my mistakes and view every day as a new opportunity to succeed. I have continued to volunteer with the organization of Teen Court and was even able to score an internship with the District Attorney’s Office last summer. My direct involvement in courtroom activities kindled my desire for a greater comprehension of our justice system, leading me to the ultimate decision of applying to law school after I finish my undergraduate studies. Now, as a senior, I am writing to you both with three months of high school remaining in order to tell you that I have been accepted to my number one college choice! When writing my two essays for my college application, my probationary period remained the main focus as I was able to fully explain how this painful period in my life allowed for my emotional growth in the future.

I would sincerely like to thank the both of you for representing me during my court case and always remaining hopeful, regardless of the circumstances. I would also like to apologize for not being able to keep in contact as much as I had hoped. I currently have a job and am fully enjoying my senior year. I would definitely love to catch up and see how you two are doing!

There are clearly no easy answers, though as always you are encouraged to share your thoughts in the comments.

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About Tamar Birckhead

This entry was posted in Advocacy, Clinical Legal Education, Criminal /Juvenile Defense. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Are We Making a Difference?

  1. tbirckhe says:

    Thanks to Tim Harkness for recommending this post (and the Juvenile Justice Blog) on the Yale Class of 1987 blog:

    Boola Boola!