by Aleta Sprague
On Thursday (June 13) we’ll be holding our 2013 Summer Pro Bono & Public Interest Forum. At the Summer Forum, law students and young lawyers will hear from attorneys in a range of public interest fields, with panels ranging from criminal law to family law to international human rights.
We’re previewing each of the panels. Our second installment looks at the practice of criminal defense. (Read our first installment on civil rights/civil liberties practice.)
Fifty years after the Supreme Court’s decision in Gideon v. Wainwright, the right to counsel for indigent criminal defendants has never been more important—or more imperiled. Yet in the media, pop culture, and even within the legal profession, criminal defense is often a poorly understood or misrepresented area of practice.To get a sense of what it’s really like to do this critical work, I spoke to Gwendolyn Washington, an attorney with the DC Public Defender Serviceand the facilitator of the Criminal Law and Death Penalty session at our upcoming Summer Forum.
Challenges and Rewards
One of Ms. Washington’s favorite parts of her job as a public defender is getting results every day – and knowing that she is helping people who might not otherwise get help. Many clients come from very difficult backgrounds and have struggled with substance abuse or mental health problems. As a result, public defenders have to “count victories in different ways”–a successful outcome may not always mean an acquittal, but perhaps a lighter sentence or getting a client into drug treatment.
Criminal defense work can also require fixing errors made by other attorneys. This is a frequent issue for colleagues of Ms. Washington who work on death penalty cases; often, they find that a client’s previous lawyer missed something crucial that could have made a tremendous difference in their case.
Finally, funding for public defenders’ offices is a persistent challenge. While the D.C. Public Defender’s office has more resources than most, public defenders often receive a modest salary to manage a massive caseload. And sequestration is making these problems worse.
According to Ms. Washington, public defenders must have compassion and empathy. A lawyer can learn trial skills, but it’s also critical to have an innate ability to put yourself in your client’s shoes–and understand how he or she will be perceived by a judge or jury. And because D.C. courts do not require open-file discovery in criminal cases, your client will generally be your most important investigative tool. Defense attorneys can shut down their own case if they approach their clients with preconceived notions. As a result, listening and an open mind are key.
Tips for Law Students
Law students interested in careers in criminal law should take advantage of opportunities to get hands-on experience while still in school. Criminal justice clinics and externships can provide the chance to put classroom skills into practice under the supervision of a seasoned attorney. Ms. Washington pointed to her own experiences with DC Law Students in Court and as an extern with the Public Defender Service as formative moments in her career.
A Preview of the Criminal Law/Death Penalty Session
Criminal defense is one of the hardest jobs you can have as an attorney–but it can also be extremely rewarding. As a public defender, Ms. Washington noted, you quickly become used to questions about how you can “defend those people”–even from other attorneys. Yet working as a public defender entails protecting some of the most basic principles in the Bill of Rights. As a public defender, you may be all that stands between your client and a jail cell, or even death row.
Participants in Ms. Washington’s session will hear from private criminal defense attorneys, public defense attorneys who work on both the trial and appellate level, and attorneys who focus on death penalty cases. The panel promises to be an engaging and inspiring look at an incredibly important but often misunderstood field of law–don’t miss it!
Want to learn more? Follow along on Twitter at #SF2013.