The abridged narrative of a public defender

New associates tend to rely entirely on “trickle down economics” to gain experience — partners bring in clients, and occasionally, work from said clients trickle down to associates. These tend to be matters that are not terribly serious, otherwise, the client would want the partner, not an associate, to handle them.

Common tasks include, but are not limited to, research, drafting of motions/pleadings, and depositions. For many of my law school friends, this “trickle down” experience has characterized the first two years of their legal careers; it’s also one I thought I’d have for the first few years of my life when I lived in New York.

My view changed when I moved back to the Eastern Shore of Maryland. A few months ago, I became employed at one of the oldest firms in the area. I looked forward to my tenure; however, while the firm practiced mostly in the fields of business, banking, wills, and real estate, I had ambitions of not only assisting in those fields, but also developing a practice in criminal law.

In order to succeed, my task was obvious: build a client base and develop the field within the firm. My ambition has led to tangible success — so much so, that most of my days revolve around my growing criminal caseload. My success is due to several factors: networking, speaking three languages, knowing when and how to advertise my strengths, and of course, word of mouth from happy clients.

The trek, however, started off slowly at first. The first several clients were apprehensive of hiring my services, largely, because I am and look 26-years-old. “Have you really done a lot of these cases?” was a common question I heard. Considering my age and youthful looks, I couldn’t blame them. Granted, I dress professionally, but, my face and dark, black hair betray my attempts to look older.

Their apprehension, however, evolved into confidence when I informed them I had participated in more than 1,000 criminal cases. It’s a strong hand I wouldn’t have possessed had I not been an assistant public defender.

The role of an assistant public defender is tough, but can be rewarding. Metaphorically speaking, to be an assistant public defender, especially at first, is like landing on foreign enemy terrority with bullets flying in all directions. Inexperience, disorientation, unawareness of your surroundings, large caseloads, little time to prep for cases and clients who are often incommunicado, can and have claimed many assistant public defenders.

Making the foray all the more difficult is the fact that those you’re tasked to protect have little to no faith in your abilities. In the eyes of some of these clients, you’re working in conjunction with the State’s Attorney’s Office, or you’re not a “real attorney” (or a “public pretender”). It’s a tremendous amount of obstalces, but, challenges that can be overcome.

In fact, by adapting to such conditions, assistant public defenders have the chance to develop skills that will pay dividends in the future. Simply put, their battles foster experience, insight, and more importantly, confidence.  While some detractors would argue an assistant public defender’s experience is overstated because one day can bring 20-30 cases, I would strongly disagree.

Said detractor’s logic reminds me of men who say their wives only gave birth once when they had twins. According to the women I know who’ve had the experience, twins equal two births. In the case of the assistant public defender, no case is alike: facts, parties, and consequences vary, as a result, each case requires a different approach. When an assistant public defender completes a day’s work, they have earned the right to say they litigated 15, 20, or 30 cases.

Several times, I lost my voice at the tail-end of finishing a caseload of 20-30 cases. Have you had a client urinate in the middle of a trial? I have. Have you ever dealt with a client who believes you’re an agent sent to put glass in their food? I have. Have you ever had a client who cursed out a judge? I have… several times.

These are just a snippet of war stories any assistant public defender can recount. They’re all experiences I’m glad I had, and the job is one I’d recommend to any attorney wishing to get courtroom experience.

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