Public Defender 101: Rule 31 – Know when to walk away

This is the last rule for the Public Defender 101 that I feel that I can legitimately write about, given the fact that I am no longer a public defender. The prior thirty rules have been mentioned at PD Stuff, and you can read the full list of the rules here. I have passed the torch about these rules to Gideon. I hope that he adds to them. However, here is my last take at it.

In the almost 13 years of being an attorney, I have been a public defender. While I had my gripes and complains about the day-to-day trials that come with the job, I enjoyed what I did. However, my first crisis of faith was back on September 13, 2003 when a drunk driver killed my sister-in-law and my infant niece in an automobile accident. I tried to weather the storm. Yet, between the emotional toll of the death of my relatives and the normal wear-and-tear of the job, it got to me, and a year after their death, I had to step away from being a public defender. I went into private practice doing consumer bankruptcy cases with a firm in Atlanta. I enjoyed working in Atlanta; I enjoyed the increase in pay; I enjoyed the fact that none of my clients went to jail or were in jail. However, I was not happy. I felt that I was in a job, and not in a profession. It was not my calling. So, when the opportunity presented it, which was within six months of me walking away, I went back to being a public defender.

It was not easy, even though I went back to the same circuit where I had practiced previously. It seemed every aspect of the practice was harder, and more demanding. Nevertheless, I threw myself into my job because I was happy. Even when I left in 2006 to go to an adjoining circuit to work as a public defender, I enjoyed what I did. Now, I will not lie, and say that I was Mister Sunshine. I did my fair share of bitching and moaning about the rigors of the profession. Yet, I had no doubt that I was where I needed to be.

Just like the ocean slowly ebbs away the coastline, so did being a public defender to my well-being. I made poor decisions regarding my health, both physical and mental, and I suffered for it. However, a day came where I realized that I needed to take better care of myself, and I started to alter some of my lifestyle choices. While my physical health improved, the diminution of the joy that I had in being a public defender continued to fade away from me. Without warning or great fanfare, one day I woke up, and I started viewing being a public defender as a job, and not as a calling. My viewpoint about being a public defender had become like one of Hawkeye’s rants from MASH about the disdain for being in the Korean War. However, I am my father’s son; I am my mother’s son; I refused to quit. I told myself that I was letting the stress get the better of me, and that I can persevere. For a while, it worked. I was able to carry on, and be the dutiful advocate for my clients. Yet, I knew that I needed a change.

In February 2012, I posted an entry entitled “Shockabuku.” It contained a scene from one of my favorite movies of all time, “Grosse Pointe Blank.” Here is that scene:

I wrote that I needed a Shockabuku moment, and badly. Well, I got one.

On March 13, 2012, a Superior Court Judge found me in contempt of court, and rightfully so. My actions were contemptuous. I will not talk about the events that led to me being found in contempt because I made a promise not to do so. In addition, it is the ethical thing to do. Yet, I will talk about what happened to me because of being found in contempt. After a deputy placed me in handcuffs and he took me out of the courtroom, he took me to the office of the Captain that was in charge of the security of the courthouse. As I sat in this office, I had time to take stock of my life, and I had time to think about what I wanted for myself. In that moment, I realized that I did not want to advance to be the chief assistant public defender or the circuit public defender. I realized that I wanted more out of life. How to achieve it was the question.

I considered quitting being an attorney, and going into another line of work. However, after contemplation, I decided against that path. While I could no longer continue with being the catcher in the rye, and that I needed to walk away from being a public defender, I knew that I wanted to be a criminal defense attorney. It was not until recently, when the opportunity presented itself to where I could do so.

I know that some will question my dedication to being a criminal defense attorney, after reading this. So be it. To be honest, I do not care. Yet, the point that I was trying to make through this rambling post is this: know when to walk away. Not everyone that becomes a public defender can be a “lifer.” It is okay. This profession is not about you, but serving the needs of your fellow man. It is better that you are honest with yourself than sell your clients short.

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13 Replies to “Public Defender 101: Rule 31 – Know when to walk away”

  1. Although I don’t personallyknow you, and found your post through another site, your decision sounds like a reasoned and well thought out. That’s the best anyone can do in life.

    My condolences on your loss, I can think of few things more tragic and wish you all the best in the future. As a former military man, I often heard/hear the phrase “thank you for your service”, but in your profession, you guys are the ones truly deserving of thanks in an often thankless profession. Godspeed.

  2. After 13 years, nobody can question your commitment as a criminal defense lawyer. Really, I don’t think there is anything more challenging. During my three years as a PD in Philly, I saw colleagues lose it in court. Others did quiet flameouts, dropping files off on their desks, never to return.

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