Decades ago, when I was in my late twenties, I was living in Boston and working as a public defender, representing indigent folks charged with criminal offenses in district and superior court. I loved the work, but it was all-consuming and the culture of the office was less than healthy (regular drinking in local bars after hours, incestuous relationships among colleagues, etc.).
Not surprisingly given this setting, my personal life was a mess; once a week at lunchtime I’d take the T (the city subway system) up Beacon Street to see my therapist, a quiet, white-haired man in his seventies who sat sternly behind his desk while we spoke; I often felt that I was still in law school, meeting with one of my overbearing professors during office hours. Dr. G. was a traditional Freudian, posing a long sequence of questions and offering little feedback, advice, or direction — all of which I desperately needed.
During one of these sessions, Dr. G. adjusted his little wire-frame glasses and asked me, “Why do you do what you do?” I was stumped. ”Um…what do you mean?” I answered. ”Why do you work as a public defender?” he clarified. I looked at him. I knew this wasn’t a variation of the age-old question, “How can you defend those people?” but a more nuanced query into the psychological bases for wanting to defend poor people charged with crimes. We were both quiet for several moments. Finally I told him, “Well…I really don’t know.” Dr. G. sighed, shook his head, and said nothing. I had clearly failed the test, much as I had during the Socratic exchanges with my Contracts professor my 1L year of law school.
Yet, I’ve thought a lot about that question over the years. As I spend a good amount of my time speaking with law students who are interested in public defender work, I’ve developed a response that feels true to me. I talk about being comfortable with the role of the defender, wanting to be the voice for the person in the courtroom who everyone else has contempt for, and knowing that speaking on behalf of the “state” or the “government” would not be a good fit. Of course everyone has their own personal and individual reasons for doing this work, but I’ve come to see certain common threads that run through many of the explanations.
The other day I was in juvenile court with a client whom I’ll call David — a smart, sensitive thirteen-year-old African-American young man. Earlier this year David had been adjudicated delinquent for a minor offense and was now having difficulty on probation — he made little effort in school and would spend days away from home, no one knowing where he was. David’s grandmother had raised him, as his mother struggled with drug addiction during the first ten years of his life; only recently had she gotten clean, and David had been returned to her. As a result, David had a tentative relationship with his mother, whom he had never learned to trust. He also had never met his father, who apparently had little interest in his soft-spoken son; David was deeply wounded by his father’s absence and rejection.
As David and I stood next to each other, responding to the judge’s questions, I was struck by the recognition of how broken this young man was — through no fault of his own. And I was even more struck by how similar the two of us were. I also had a single mother, my father having left us when I was a baby. I also had spent much of my childhood with my grandmother, the one adult in my life whom I could rely upon. I also had trust and abandonment issues.
I smiled to myself as I considered telling David that I understood what he was going through. I imagined him looking at me like I was crazy, wondering how this white, Jewish, middle-aged lady could know anything about his life. And maybe I don’t. But I do feel a deep connection with many of my clients, with their struggles and disappointments. And I do get great satisfaction out of strategizing on their cases with them, figuring out how best to get the result that they are after, trying to empower them with the knowledge that they have someone on their side. Often I fail, but — as they say — the journey is worth the effort.
Maybe now I have an answer for Dr. G.