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.