Remembering What's Important to Clients
Friday was a long day for me and full of new and unique experiences. I was up bright and early to get ready for my busy day. One of the many tasks I had for the day was dealing with a client and his family in a situation with which they had zero experience and no possible way of comprehending what would happen next. While this experience was something brand new, and quite stressful, for them, I had gone through the process many times and rarely think twice about it. This time, however, was different.
Looking into their eyes and observing the emotions surfacing, I knew this would not be a typical, or routine, event. For many of my clients, they’ve been through the legal system and the accompanying court appearances and procedures so many times that they likely could handle it themselves. It was apparent, with this family, though, that there would be nothing “typical” or “routine” that day.
I believe an important trait in a criminal defense attorney not only is a solid and fluent understanding of the law but also a capacity to be empathetic to my clients and provide personal and human understanding. It is this trait that I try never to forget and to provide to every client with whom I interact. On this day that included sitting for an hour with family and my investigator discussing the case and providing reassurances. Ultimately, it also meant rearranging an entire day’s schedule.
Expanding Legal Network
Earlier in the week, I had scheduled with a fellow UVA alum to grab a cup of coffee. I’ve been making a more concerted effort to reach out to lawyers in other areas of practice to expand my network and learn about other attorneys and their practices. First, I had to send her an email to reschedule or postpone our meeting time, as I had done a few times earlier in the week. In the criminal defense world, things can pop up suddenly and a court appearance rarely takes “just a couple of minutes.” Fortunately, I arrived “on time,” for our newly scheduled meeting, and we chatted for a while. Of course, having had to delay this java break, my schedule got a bit more behind.
I Have a Dream Oregon
I was scheduled to speak at Alder Elementary School’s Career Day through I Have a Dream Oregon at 12:15. Alder Elementary is an “at risk” school in Gresham, an area sometimes not-so-affectionately referred to as “felony flats.” Unfortunately, not a lot of high expectations are associated with students attending this school and sadly they become the forgotten youth of Portland, that is until their impoverished lives affect the rest of us. I Have a Dream Oregon is a wonderful organization that has adopted the school and works with these “Dreamers” from kindergarten through high school to help the students achieve college educations.
I had spoken with Shyvonne Williams, the program director with I Have a Dream Oregon, and happily agreed to speak at the career day. I had been racking my brain for entertaining anecdotes and inspiring experiences to share so that I could convince these amazing children to become lawyers. I believed I had come up with a good plan and was ready to inspire…until Shyvonne dropped a bomb on me. “Rob,” she said, “you’ll be speaking with kindergarteners and first graders.” After a brief moment of sheer panic, I settled into the stage of complete fright. I had no idea how to talk to 5-7-year-olds, but was pretty sure the “entertaining” stories I had intended on sharing with older kids quite likely would not be appropriate for this audience.
I arrived at Alder Elementary about 10 minutes behind schedule, due to my earlier audibles. Shyvonne informed me I would be spending about 30 minutes with three different classes. I proceeded to the first class and began my presentation, after a minute or so in the room with the teacher imploring the audience of 30 youth to be quiet, with an apology for my tardiness. Immediately I was asked, “did you bring a video?”…I had not! In fact, I had nothing with me other than the obligatory legal pad and a tie with law books, the scales of justice, and a gavel on it (I had been informed the night before that it would be appropriate to wear for career day, but not for my court appearance). I had planned to bring a gavel from my office and some other props, but, due to my earlier delays, ran out of time to swing by the office. The teacher tried to throw me a bone and get things rolling by asking the students “what is a lawyer?” and “what do lawyers do?” While some students denied any clue, a few piped up. One declared, “they give money out at banks,” another volunteered, “they make a lot of money,” and of course one posited, “lawyer means liar.” This was the nail in the coffin for my conclusion that my “game plan” and preparation was out the window and I was now improvising.
I come from a family of teachers and always have had a great appreciation for their work…and PATIENCE! I’ve attended my mother’s and sister’s elementary school classes and was impressed with their students’ inquisitive nature and passion. However, I was not prepared for where this youthful inquisition would take me on career day. While some students were interested in what I do and what my usual day looks like, most were more interested in, “what’s your favorite color,” or “what’s your favorite food?” The question I was completely unprepared for, however, was, “what’s that scar on your head?”
I fought through these queries and decided some stories might help…after all, a big part of doing trial work is being a storyteller. I told the students a few stories I thought were very interesting…most of my audience was unimpressed. So, I moved on and, I’m unabashed to say, started making stuff up. Somehow I had to fill up 30 minutes of time and was running out of colors and foods.
Eventually, I moved on to talk a little bit more about lawyers and how my job not only is about storytelling but is about ensuring fairness. Being a criminal defense lawyer largely is about making sure people are treated fairly. I thought a little story, or example, might be helpful. I suggested to the kids that I used to write on the walls with crayons and my parents immediately would assume it was me and not my sister who had committed the wrongdoing (this again is a fiction I created). I wasn’t being treated fairly and could have used a lawyer. In retrospect, this was probably one of my biggest mistakes. I spent most of the rest of my time in the class listening to and providing commentary to stories from the students about how they, or their siblings, would write on their own walls. If nothing else, I think I established many of them are great storytellers and possess one of the most important skills of being a trial lawyer.
Back to attorney mode
Just as it had been necessary to pivot from a fearless advocate for accused citizens to a terrified amateur in front of an audience of 5-7 year olds, I had to switch back to attorney mode and begin dissecting police reports, motions, case law, and statutes. Eventually, the storytelling, my favorite part, will come, but, initially, it’s all about preparation…and a lot of reading! I spent the rest of the afternoon poring over documents and working to develop cogent arguments that could be molded in to a good story.
By closing time for the day, I had completed a solid amount of work. I had served as an advocate, a consoler, an entertainer, a sounding board for kindergarteners, and a developer of a story. But, in the end, it was a day that encompassed all the parts of what is important to me as a lawyer; a solid understanding of the law with a demonstrable passion for, and understanding of, my clients and their situations accentuated by a humbling exposure to the inquisitive and roaming minds of 5 year olds. This is a “typical” Friday in the life of a criminal defense attorney.