How do attorneys live with themselves?

A few days ago, I volunteered to be a presenter at a Career Day Fair for a local university.

As the only attorney, I had the opportunity to speak with more than 150 9th graders.  As a person who grew up in Section 8 housing, I often volunteer with nonprofit organizations in the hopes of getting an opportunity to speak with students about the importance of education. For the most part, the students seemed interested in my 10-minute presentation, especially when I discussed DNA, fingerprints, and time of death.

After I finished my presentation, I allowed for questions. As you can imagine,  I was frequently asked “How much do you make?,” “Are lawyers liars,” and “Why’d you become a lawyer?” Seeing these questions a mile ahead, I came prepared and responded with ease.

However, one question momentarily stunned me: “How do you live with yourself?”

To put the last question in context, I must note that it was offered in response to my explanation of the extent of attorney-client privilege.

The first seeds of dismay were sown in the audience when I explained that attorneys are required to keep communications with their clients secretive. Of course, one student asked, “What’s the worst secret you’ve heard?” I casually responded that said communication would not be appropriate for a setting with high school students.

Another student then asked, “Would you have to keep a murder confession from your client secret?” I responded that I would because in a nation based on the rule of law, every citizen is entitled to adequate representation and adequate representation can only come about if an attorney has the trust of their client.

For the most part, the students nodded their heads in agreement –- with the exception of the student who posed the question. Still perplexed, or perhaps shocked, he followed up: “Well, if that was the only thing that could convict your client, would you still keep quiet?”

“Yes,” I responded.  “It’s the state’s burden to prove their case. If they can’t do it, then the client remains innocent in the eyes of the law.”

“So, you’d be OK with him living in society, even though you know he killed someone,” he asked one last time. “How do you live with yourself?” he added, before I could respond.

He didn’t ask it in a rude or smart-alecky way –- I could tell because the other students weren’t laughing or giggling. They sensed his sincerity. I too sensed it. I thought about the question for a few seconds.

After I’d gathered my thoughts, I explained, “While it’s a difficult concept to grasp, believe it or not, in the end it’s in society’s best interest that that person be freed. We, as a society, cannot tolerate a system in which people feel helpless against the state. If confidentiality is not provided to every member of society, who would people go to if they were accused of a crime? Depending on the crime or claim, an attorney may be their only saving grace, but in a society that did not guarantee confidentiality, any trust in an attorney would be lost. I would hate to live in such a place –- a place where people had no recourse against the state, and the state was an abuser, rather than a protector.”

I spoke with the young man after that presentation and thanked him for his interest. He  shared that he still could not fully understand the concept of attorney-client privilege, but admitted that if he ever ran into any trouble he’d want to be able to confide in his attorney.

For my part, the exchange reinforced how important and noble of a profession we’ve chosen. In a world of happenstance, it only seems fitting that this recognition came not by way of an award or professional organization, but rather from the relentless cross-examination of a 9th grader.

6 thoughts on “How do attorneys live with themselves?

  1. And that’s why I never ask a criminal defense client whether or not he or she did it, whether or not he or she is guilty, or anything similar. The closest I get is “Have you read the Statement of Probable Cause?” and if they say “yes” then I ask “What, if anything, do you disagree with in it?”.

  2. I’m not an attorney or anything close to one, but the ability of the accused to trust his advocate’s (lawyer’s)confidentiality seems like the foundation of our legal system. Otherwise, how can the accused offer an informed defense?

  3. Unless you know your lawyer on a personal level, you don’t really know with certainty that you can trust him. Lawyers often have friends or “connections” that they work with. Often times money is exchanged behind closed doors. You never can be too sure of who to trust in the world of government, politics, and lawyers.

  4. To help a murderer get away with murder means you have forgotten why murder is against the law. It is amoral no matter how you rationalize it. If, as you say, you would hate to live in a place where the state is an abuser rather than a protector, then you should not prevent the state from acting as the protector of people in danger from criminals.

  5. This is the flawed argument of allowing a known evil so that a potential evil doesn’t ever develop. The fact is, the more evil people released, the more our rights are restricted to “protect” us from ourselves. There are plenty of checks and balances within our legal system. Can you ever imagine sitting around a table thinking of a strategy to free O.J. Simpson? Or Ted Bundy, or those four predatory killers who just murdered a guy to get his car in NJ. Attack the cops, attack everyone, just so we can be protected from the state?? The reason somebody can sleep at night knowing their murderous client was set free is because ultimately they do not exalt human life to the extent others do. If they did, they could not sleep. The good guys always do the right thing, even if it means excusing themselves from the case. Or, at least admitting to a group of students they are tormented in their soul and know it is wrong. Sitting across from a person who you know murdered somebody and sleeping at night is just something that some people are able to do and others are not. We all want a free society.

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