The Psyche of the Public Defender

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.

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About Tamar Birckhead

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4 Responses to The Psyche of the Public Defender

  1. tbirckhe says:

    I just came upon this interesting article on why one Ohio lawyer represents indigent criminal defendants:

  2. Bill Otis says:

    With all respect, Professor Birckhead, it is one thing to explain the allure of being a public defender for a forlorn 13 year-old on probation for a “minor offense,” and another to explain it when the client is more typical — say, a 29 year-old meth dealer with a rap sheet as long as your arm, and whose surliness and manipulative character are matched only by his dishonesty.

  3. Ken Harris says:

    Although I am not sure what the previous commentor meant for his point to be, his post does point out yet another difference between those that choose the life of a public defender and those that do not. “[A] 29 year-old meth dealer with a rap sheet as long as your arm, and whose surliness and manipulative character are matched only by his dishonesty” is surely a difficult case with which to work. First – the idea that this kind of person is “more typical” depends on a number of factors, not least of which is what kind of defender work one does. But more importantly, this example should make little difference to a public defender if they are engaged in the practice in which they believe.

    I have represented these types of “surly” individuals as well as juveniles (and many who are both). As a public defender you don’t pick your client. This is one of the crucial distinctions of being a public defender. Even prosecutors have some say over their “clients” (ability to dismiss, etc.). That is why it is so important, in my opinion, to ensure you represent these indigent criminal defendants for the right reasons (and it surely isn’t for the money). Everyone deserves to have their rights protected and to level the “playing field” as much as is possible, regardless of their “surliness” or “rap sheet” or any other negative characteristic.

    To many, defending juveniles may look easy, especially in comparison to someone who defends adults who sell drugs. If you look further into it, however, I believe you would realize that it may even be more difficult to represent juveniles due to the complexity of the issues surrounding them, their generally low understanding and perception of the criminal system, and their dependent legal status. But, as I believe Professor Birckhead would agree, if you are a public defender with the passion and beliefs she expresses, making the connection with your client and trying to help them understand and protect their rights is worth the fight regardless of their background or position. To be honest, it is really a shame that our adult system doesn’t model itself MORE like the juvenile system. Maybe if we attempted to concern ourselves with the background, mental health and/or economic circumstances of adult defendants as well, we might be able to actually reduce recidivism in our country long-term instead of just arguing over mandatory minimums and incarceration rates.

  4. tbirckhe says:

    I echo what Ken Harris so eloquently stated above. Yes, my client David’s situation may be particularly sympathetic, but I must say (based on my personal experience representing indigent criminal clients for nearly twenty years) that I have found the vast majority of my clients to be equally sympathetic. In fact, it has often been the clients with the longest records — and those charged with some of the most violent offenses — who have been the easiest, most appreciative, and most satisfying to represent. They understand the system, they know that I am working my butt off for them, and they accept the consequences of their actions. In fact, when I was a federal public defender, I often found first-time non-violent offenders — typically white, middle-class men — to be the most difficult clients to work with, as they were angry, entitled, and lacking in respect because I was not a “real” lawyer. Of course, these are all gross generalizations, which I’d prefer to avoid, but suffice it to say that very, very few of the hundreds (thousands?) of clients I’ve had over the years could be characterized as “surly…manipulative…[and] dishonest.”