I'm Not Impressed, and Frankly, I'm a Little Offended
The speaker began her remarks by telling the audience that early in her career she had worked as a public defender. I hear that "I used to be a public defender" line all the time. Speakers seem to throw it out there - always to a room full of PD's - I guess to establish his or her bona fides. When I hear that line, I wonder how often these speakers throw that fact out to non-public defender audiences. So I want to get something off my chest...A few years ago, Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Randy Newman released a song he called, A Few Words in Defense of Our Country. In that song he 'defends' our country's leaders, "while they're the worse we've ever had, [they're] hardly the worst this poor world has ever seen." After all -- as Newman points out -- they aren't as bad as the first few Caesars, Hitler, Stalin, King Leopold of Belgium…
In the song, Newman also shares his opinion about the Supreme Court, expressing dissatisfaction that this Court will out-live him. He offers, "a couple Italian fellas and a 'brother' on the [Supreme] Court now, too. But I defy you—anywhere in the world—to find me two Italians as tight-ass as the Italians we got. And as for the 'brother', well... Pluto's not a planet anymore, either."
This song came to mind during a Continuing Legal Education function for public defenders. The speaker began her remarks by telling the audience that early in her career she had worked as a public defender. I hear that "I used to be a public defender" line all the time. Speakers seem to throw it out there - always to a room full of PD's - I guess to establish his or her bona fides. When I hear that line, I wonder how often these speakers throw that fact out to non-public defender audiences.
So I want to get something off my chest: I'm not impressed, and frankly, I'm a little offended. Not because the line is motivated by any bad intentions, or because it isn't true in its basic fact that the speaker once worked as a PD. The line is off-putting because it implies a shared experience or understanding with the audience. And that's just presumptuous.
Of course the speaker may just be trying to connect to his or her audience. And having been a public defender admittedly means different things to different people. It might mean that the person had experiences that give her some inside understanding of what we go through every day. But really…so what? That sense of shared camaraderie is imagined, not real, and belongs only to the person bragging about their days in the trenches. Not to us. What public defenders who hear that line are wondering is, why did you leave? Was it the money? Was it more prestige? Was it to pursue another, legitimate calling? Because on some level we get that. But what we hear in the background of every pious testimonial about the former PD's days in the trenches is the underlying tone of frustration, a tone that suggests you weren't really happy as a PD, and that's why you left. We wonder: maybe you let the burden get to you. You let the clients' mistrust or outright disrespect for you drag you down. It bothered you when client's said they'd hired a real lawyer, and it bothered you that "real" lawyers - like the one you think you are now - pretended to be better at practicing law just because they got paid.
And hey, we understand that people leave the community because of all that. That stuff gets to some people. It can cause burnout that we have to deal with, but we choose to get through it because of a quality of zen that a career PD has to master to thrive. That's why we roll our eyes when other lawyers and justice system functionaries thank or praise us for what we do, because they never do that with any consciousness of why we keep going. There's always this tone of disbelief, an incomprehension that we could possibly really want to be here. And sometimes even pity. Which really pisses us off, btw. It's like OMG your lives are miserable, you poor people. How do you do it? All we can do is shrug and smile, because it would be rude to say, "Look, you condescending asshole, I'm really sorry you don't get it, but let's get a hotdog and a beer anyway."
For those who have left the public defender community, Godspeed. But from now on, any time we hear somebody open a presentation with the bona fides, By the way, I was once just as you are, my PD brethren, we suggest a rousing chorus of A Few Words in Defense of Our Country because brother, Pluto's not a planet anymore.