Ask me: " how do you keep cynicism at bay?"

>> Sunday, February 28, 2010

Janiece writes:

One of the things I admire about you is that as a public defender, you are constantly exposed to the dregs of society. Yet, you seem to maintain a level of distance from that aspect of your profession, presumably by being dedicated to the process rather than to your clients. I strongly suspect the turn-over at a public defender's office is quite high, and yet you seem dedicated to your chosen field after many years.

I don't think you're a saint, so how do you keep cynicism at bay?


There's actually a lot to unpack there, but perhaps we should start with the very last question: the short answer is that I don't.

I don't know if the public defender office I work at is typical in this respect, but I suspect it is: there's a lot of MASH-unit humor or sensibility in a PD's office, or at least the sort of thing that's imagined to be MASH-unit sensibilities after decades of various incarnations of M*A*S*H at the theatre and on TV (and all those reruns!). You laugh and maintain a certain degree of laid-back-ness in the face of things that, if you didn't laugh and try to stay chilly, you'd just lose your fucking mind, if you even had one to start with (seeing as how it may have been crazy to go into that area of law to start with). Actually, I doubt it's even unique to PD offices--I certainly see it mirrored in the local DA's office. You get used to the fact that people will come back, no matter how much they swear to do good, and that today's victim will be tomorrow's defendant and vice-versa, and that all sorts of terrible things happen in the world almost as a matter of routine. And you put up a bit of a shell and make off-color jokes about awful things in the inner sanctums of the office, and you gird your loins for another day because that's what you do and not because you're sure it matters in the least. And yeah, you get kind of cynical about all of it, and I do mean all of it--not just the clients, but about the whole process and everybody in it, including yourself, other lawyers, cops, judges, probation officers, social workers, and anybody else you might think of.

That's not to say you lose all hope or optimism. Just as was the case when Pandora opened up the Gods Big Box O' Fear And Evil, Hope is the last thing in the box or you'd just quit, and a lot of people do (although my office has been pretty stable for a number of years). But "hope" and "cynicism" aren't necessarily exclusive or even opposites. You can certainly hope that a client will stay in rehab or hang onto a job or whatever--while realistically (or cynically) expecting that, no, this won't happen.

Which brings up something else, I guess, which is that cynicism is actually easier and more comfy, you know? It's the clients that you really get hopeful for without the leavening of cynicism who break your heart. But you get over that and move on or you don't and you go into something nice, careerwise.

The other part of your question is sort of based on a wrong-but-understandable presumption: "you are constantly exposed to the dregs of society." I'm not sure that's actually true, or true the way I suspect you mean. I alluded to part of that a moment ago, writing, "today's victim will be tomorrow's defendant...." The fact is that the number of clients I've represented in twelve years who really were, in my opinion, scum of the Earth with no redeeming features whatsoever, I can probably count on one hand; actually, I can think of only one right off, and am just sort of guessing at there being maybe two or three more, a literal handful at best. Meanwhile, the poor innocents that Justice needs to protect are very rarely that at all, and its not the least bit unusual for the DA to be prosecuting somebody tomorrow who was a chief witness for the State a few weeks back.

A lot of the people I represent never really had a chance to know any better; they never had the familial or social support or education in school to even know what their better choices might be, a lot of them are repeating the mistakes their parents made. A large number are addicted to drugs and/or alcohol, some of them because of bad choices and some of them because they're mentally ill and tried self-medication instead of seeing an actual doctor (something that may have been financially unavailable or, believe-it-or-not, simply not a part of their life skills set--they know that doctors exist but don't realize that one might be able to address their particular problems, or going isn't the logical or obvious thing in their family or community). Increasingly, in a bad economy, you see the "Jean Valjean" scenario--I've represented any number of people arrested for stealing diapers, baby food, children's clothing, and other fairly basic necessities, just as Victor Hugo's character was imprisoned for stealing bread for his sister's children; another common enough crime is to steal something then attempt to return it to the store it was stolen from for a refund or to pawn it--usually there's a rent check or utility bill that was the impetus. None of these people are "dregs" in any meaningful sense.

On the other hand, I will also say I've had the misfortune of dealing with crooked cops, bitter and vengeful victims who appear to be motivated by nothing but spite, outright liars (North Carolina, incidentally, allows citizens to personally swear out misdemeanor charges before a magistrate, which frequently results in people using "grudge warrants" to extract revenge or inconvenience an enemy), and elitists in business or my own profession who are lacking in any sort of empathy for otherwise decent people who may have made one single awful decision--so there are certainly dregs of the human race I've faced who weren't my clients. Sometimes you deal with that unpleasantness by taking on the mantle of being an even bigger asshole than they are--I confess I've sometimes had a grim satisfaction in making somebody's life unpleasant, particularly when I finished by getting an acquittal out of it so that the bastard paid and got nothing in return. Seriously, it makes you feel kind of like Batman or something, the grim avenger sticking up for the little guy and causing a little righteous pain to the iniquitous.

Call that, if you will, not being a saint but being a sinner on the side of the angels.

The last thing I'd say is that process plays surprisingly little role in day-to-day lawyering with what I do. It's not absent, but there is a sense in which process is a tool in your arsenal and not always an end in itself. "When the facts are against you," and old saying goes, "argue the law, and when the law's against you, argue the facts." Sometimes I am process oriented because I have a tendency to be a rules lawyer because I'm an asshole and that's one of the ways my assholeness manifests (it's probably an insecurity thing, actually, but that's beside the point). E.g. I'm also one of those people who is slightly mortified whenever somebody wants to play Monopoly with a kitty. (It's just wrong, people--fines and fees go to the bank, says so right in the rules, and "Free Parking" is explicitly a space on which nothing happens. Those influxes of random cash is why your games take forever and you think they're boring.) (I'm trying to be less anal-retentive as I grow old; the jury remains out as to my success or lack thereof.)

Thank you for asking. Does that answer the question(s)?


Janiece Sunday, February 28, 2010 at 4:31:00 PM EST  

It does, but I do think you made an assumption about what I meant by "the dregs of society." I'm enough of a cynic myownself to believe that the defendants, even if convicted, aren't necessarily the most fucked up people in the room. (See: Wire, The. 2002-2008.)

I guess the more germane question is, How do you maintain a desire to do the best you can in spite of your cynicism?

sestomat: A place you go to wash your dirty bits.

Eric Sunday, February 28, 2010 at 5:28:00 PM EST  

How do you maintain a desire to do the best you can in spite of your cynicism?


Y'know, I hate to sound flip, but until you asked that, it never occurred to me not to. Maybe that's how my parents raised me or something, I dunno. Is not doing my best at my profession an option? I guess losing my law license is an external motivation, but frankly I think I'd just feel guilty and ashamed if I slacked off because my client was an asshole or the cause hopeless.

Megan Monday, March 1, 2010 at 12:07:00 AM EST  

I love, love, love reader-submitted questions.

Warner (aka ntsc) Monday, March 1, 2010 at 7:15:00 AM EST  

You do the best you can because it is who you are.

I suppose my parents had something to do with it, although in my case I think it was the high school band director/music teacher, but it is for me.

Janiece Monday, March 1, 2010 at 12:21:00 PM EST  

...but frankly I think I'd just feel guilty and ashamed if I slacked off because my client was an asshole or the cause hopeless.

And that's one of the reasons why you have a UCF Harem. :-)

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