Friday, April 2, 2010

The Care and Feeding of the Public Defender Soul

For all you PD Bosses and Supervisors out there, a handy guide to tending the public-defender soul.

1. Ditch the "Supervisor" Label
First, may we herewith and henceforth forever ban the word "supervisor" in every public-defender office in the land. "Supervisor" is an awful word, implying that one must be watched, monitored, and disciplined. The label itself encourages complaints, demeans the supervisee as one in need of supervision, and often, I think, instills in the "supervisor" a psychological (or, sometimes pathological) need to supervise.*

Instead of modeling your leadership from the hierarchical supervisor system, fashion yourselves as "coaches." Professionals at the top of their games get advice and take direction from coaches who teach, encourage, and inspire--you guys can do that, can't you?

Bosses: Evaluate your "supervisors." Is she helping the lawyers or goofing around? Does she meet with lawyers before work to help with trial preparation and spend lunch hours brainstorming cases? Does she seek out cutting-edge issues from other jurisdictions? Or is she kissing your ass in order to keep her cushy job?

2. Encourage Us
Never forget the ridiculous crap we put up with every day: don't forget how hard a trial is; don't forget how obnoxious some prosecutors are; don't forget how crappy some judges treat us. Don't forget that we are often the only ones standing up for our clients' rights, and we are getting yelled at by everyone.

Remember how all of this shit-swallowing grinds us down, and then consider: how do I keep this person fighting? You keep this person fighting by saying, "Great Job!" even if it's just for filing a brief. Or by asking, "How on earth do you put up with that bitch?" Or even, "Will it help if I go to court and kick her?" Anything, really, that says, "Keep fighting, I know you're working hard under grueling conditions. I appreciate your efforts and so do your clients."

3. Be Engaged in Stretching the Practice of Criminal Law
Keep up-to-date on cutting-edge issues. Invite outside lawyers to speak or ask your own lawyers to present on an issue.  Encourage attorneys to become become experts in one area of the law--this allows the attorneys to feel respected, and at the same time educates the presenting lawyer the other lawyers.  Ask if lawyers have the resources they need. Don't be afraid to let your lawyers teach you something.

4. Explain Stupid Rules
Many of us are not good with rules. To generalize wildly, we tend to be big-picture thinkers who don't like authority.  But don't give up.  Rather than yelling at a lawyer for breaking a rule, try explaining why the rule exists, and why it is important to follow. Your ego may want to say, "You have to follow the rule, because I am your supervisor, and you have to do what I say!" But that macho-ego shit doesn't really work with us.

Instead of, "Dammit, you're late again--this behavior has to stop immediately!" try, "Hey, I've noticed your timing is a little off in the mornings lately, is there anything going on with you?"  When the lawyer explains that he has been working all hours writing a couple of briefs that are due, you might say, "I know the long hours you've been working--your clients are lucky to have you. The thing is, the younger lawyers look up to you, and if they see you rolling in late, then they think it's OK, too. Since the briefs are finished now, could you make an effort to be here earlier? Take a long lunch if you need the mental-health time--you've certainly earned it.  And shoot me a copy of your briefs so I can share them with everyone."

5. Create a Culture that Nurtures Excellence Kickassery
Know what success means--not a failure to get complaints, not an expeditious processing of cases, not the fastest guilty pleas--success in the public defender arena means garnering the best results for each client.  Spend the time it takes to learn about our successes and talk them up. Notice the lawyers who are filing briefs, trying cases, or otherwise finagling fabulous plea bargains and talk them up.

Say "good job" to every single lawyer on a regular basis. If you can't find a reason to say "good job" to a lawyer, then you need to do your job by documenting the failures and letting the person go.

If you never say "good job," don't dog us with petty bullshit.

6. Give Us Due Process
An outstanding boss I know once said, "I wouldn't trust a lawyer who didn't get complaints from the prosecutors or the court."

You should assume nothing from the fact that you receive a complaint. You should have a standard procedure for handling complaints and follow it, making sure that no attorney feels singled out. If a complaint is legitimate, ask the lawyer how he would handle the situation differently next time. People learn from mistakes in a safe environment; people learn to resent you in a judgmental one.

7. Show Us You Are Fighting For Us
If the government tries to cut our funding, go in and fight for us, and let us see you doing it. Hold a press conference, make posters, start a media campaign. Don't give in without a fight. Don't accept additional responsibilities from the court or county without additional funding.

If the court or prosecutors are abusing one of your lawyers, go and raise hell. If you show us that you are willing to get in a fight for us, you will earn our undying respect. Sell us out to our detractors, and you may never regain it.

8. Don't Buy Into Judges and Prosecutors Smear Campaigns
Do you know who the judges and prosecutors bad-mouth? Not the lawyers who process their cases by pleading their clients guilty as fast as they can.  Not the lawyers who do anything to avoid displeasing the court. Not the lawyers who make life easy for the prosecutors.  Judges and prosecutors bad-mouth the lawyers who get in their way.  Don't buy into the crap they shovel out about us for doing our jobs. In fact, it is your job to fight against their propaganda.

Either have a close relationship with your attorneys, and know what's going on with their cases, or leave the lawyers alone to do their best. But don't think you know what's happening by listening to gossip.

9. Encourage Our Creativity and Dedication, Rather Than Stifling It
The most important thing you can do as a PD boss is to nurture the public-defender soul--the emotional commitment to do the best job possible for each client. We are starved for appreciation and easy to coach if you keep the following factors in mind: treat us with respect (you know, like real lawyers); encourage us when we work hard or have a tough battle; comfort us when we are down; be patient with us regarding rules and explain their reasons gently; ask us what we need to help us be better lawyers and try to provide it; show us you are fighting for us; and back us up.

*(not talking about my current supervisor who is a super-nice guy, and exhibits no psychological or pathological need to supervise.)


Anonymous said...

very well done! oops gotta go, my supervisor wants those TPS reports yesterday.

Jamison said...

Carol D: There was never a lot of appreciation or praise when I worked at a PD's office. But they did have our backs -- completely -- whenever we got into trouble with a judge or DA. Sounds like you would make a great supervisor. You're promoted.

Skelly said...

When I had the chief job, one of my co-workers called me a "players' coach." I'm forwarding this post to him - what a great compliment!

Anonymous said...

excellence? no, I prefer kickassery. My boss excels in kickassery, not excellence.

Jamison said...

In one of the most damning assessments of a person I have ever heard, someone once described Henry Kissinger as obsequious to superiors, devious with peers, and dominating with subordinates.

Gideon said...

Makes me very sad to think about the kind of offices most public defenders work in. Thankfully, I have none of this and I enjoy going to work everyday.

carol d said...

To Anonymous April 2:

Happy now?