by Susan Bozorgi on December 11, 2013
Last week I had the honor of interviewing Andrea D. Lyon, who has been a practicing criminal defense attorney since 1976 in Chicago, Illinois. Currently she is a Clinical Professor of Law at DePaul University College of Law, the Associate Dean for Clinical Programs, and Director of the Center for Justice in Capital Cases. In June 2014 she will become the new Dean of the Valparaiso University Law School. Andrea began her career at the Cook County Public Defender’s Office and joined the Homicide Task Force in 1979. She was the first woman in the nation to act as lead counsel in a death penalty case and by the time she left the office she was Chief of the Homicide Task Force. She is considered a national expert in the area of death penalty defense and has received numerous awards for her highly respected work. Lyon has an outstanding record of success in capital cases, winning all the capital cases that she tried through the penalty phase. In addition, she is the author of Angel of Death Row: My Life as a Death Penalty Defense Lawyer, (Kaplan 2010). Andrea has inspired a generation of women through her role as faculty at the National Criminal Defense College and I hope you will find it just as inspiring to read her candid thoughts this week and next week about her career and our profession.
As the first woman in the nation to serve as lead counsel in a death penalty case, can you describe how that felt and at the time did you understand the significance of the event?
You know I didn’t realize that I was first until much later. That would have just made me more frightened than I already was. It’s very difficult to describe the kind of pressure you’re under when dealing with these types of cases. If I tell you how hard it is you are certainly going to believe me, but it’s kind of like describing childbirth. Nobody thinks you are lying but it is hard to explain. The pressure is so much more enormous in a death penalty case than in any other criminal case. In many cases, the single most important question to whether the defendant will live or die is who his or her lawyer is. If he has a good lawyer he will live and if he has a bad lawyer he will die.
What was the criminal defense field like for women in general when you started, and more specifically, in homicide cases?
The fact that I was the first woman to act as lead counsel in a death penalty case really answers the question. There just weren’t any women. I graduated law school in 1976 and I started in the homicide division in 1979. I was the only woman in the homicide division for probably six to seven years. And there were very few women doing criminal work at all when I started out. There were some in the public defender’s office and some in the prosecutor’s office but we were very much a minority, I would say less than 10%. In Chicago, there was one, count that, one woman who was doing criminal defense in private practice.
Was there an attitude among practicing lawyers, who were 90% men, that homicides or death cases were not the kind of cases that women should be handling?
Yes somewhat. There were many people who were very supportive of me, but obviously some people were not. In the book I tell a story about my first day in Homicide Task Force. I went to court and when I came back someone had put up autopsy pictures on my wall of dead naked women. So my response was to just walk out into the secretarial pool in the center of the office and I said loudly “I am going to go out and get a cup of coffee because somebody has made a mistake and put pictures of their girlfriend in my office so when I come back I’m sure they will be gone.” And when I returned they were.
What inspired you to largely focus your practice on the representation of clients charged with homicide and/or facing the death penalty?
It was a combination of things. Frankly part of it was that I was told women couldn’t do this job and I didn’t appreciate that very much. Part of it was just the opportunity to do horizontal rather than vertical representation. In the homicide division of the public defender’s office, you pick up a case and you stay with the case the entire time. Most everything else in the felony division, you are assigned to a courtroom and whatever comes in you represent them until they move you. The client has seen three or four lawyers before they ever meet you and that is obviously problematic, although I don’t know if there is a better way to handle it with the volume of cases that Chicago has. And most importantly, I of course oppose the death penalty. I don’t know that I had as many reasons to oppose it before I started working with clients and really understood how it works or doesn’t for that matter. Through the years that philosophical opposition to the death penalty has driven me, but all of these reasons combined drew me to this work.
Do you consult around the country on death penalty cases, and if so what’s the most high profile death case that you have consulted on?
Yes I do. Probably representing Casey Anthony was the most high profile in terms of plain old media attention. I am also consulting and working with the team representing Abd Al-Rahim Hussein Muhammed Abd Al-Nashiri who is facing a military tribunal death case at the Guantanamo Bay base. Probably the best-known case in Chicago, which I describe in my book, was a defendant who was upset about his divorce and killed his wife’s lawyer and the divorce judge in open court in front of 27 eyewitnesses. I would say that was a pretty high profile death case.
What does it feel like spending so much time alone with someone that the outside world sees as a monster, and have you ever felt uncomfortable doing so?
I have tried 137 murder cases, of those cases; I have only really had a difficult time relating to one of my capital defendants. I have had clients that I haven’t cared for, which I think is normal. I have very seldom been frightened. The only time I have been is when I have had a client who has been actively psychotic, where they are just not predictable because they are so mentally ill. I am six feet tall; I’m a big girl, so I am rarely physically scared anyway.
Is there any aspect about you being a woman that either helps or hinders you when you are building a rapport with a client?
Both. When I was younger I got flirted with quite a bit and dealing with that transference issue is complex. Because you are typically the only contact the defendants may have they begin to mistake their feelings for something romantic. That is a complicated thing to handle. You need to be direct and clear about that. And sometimes you have a client that thinks you can’t handle their case because you are a “girl” or too weak and tells you so. There is nothing you can do other than tell them why don’t you just watch and see what I do after we have been working together for a bit instead of me telling you how good I am. Sometimes a male client generally feels that he can ask personal things that he wouldn’t dare ask a man. You just need to make it clear that you want to relate him and for him to build trust and confidence in you but personal matters are off limits. I have said things directly like “are you looking for someone who can win your case or are you looking for a girlfriend?” You aren’t going to motivate me to work any harder because you tell me I’m cute. Usually I find if you make the issue salient you can put it away.
What were your challenges when you started and what do you feel the challenges are for women today?
As to how I got treated in court early on, I got treated badly a lot of the time. In some ways it was easier earlier in my career because people would say things directly to you, like “what are you doing here, don’t you know I don’t like women lawyers?” This was clear enough. Today, I think most women have had the experience of feeling talked down to, not taken seriously, or simply patronized. You get that feeling that you are not being treated like an equal but it’s nothing you can put your hands on because it’s not salient. The judge or the opposition is not saying out loud or directly how stupid are you or asking whose secretary are you. The kind of things that were said early on in my career, which were offensive, but at least you knew where you stood. You could meet it on the battlefield, as it were, and do your best to deal with it directly.
Today, one of the other things that I have found disappointing is how collegiality amongst women has not increased as more women have entered the field. I was really looking forward to having more women in the profession. When we started all the women were really decent to one another because we all knew what we were called when we left the room. We all had that in common. I thought that the advent of more women in the profession would create more of that and I have been quite disappointed, particularly by women prosecutors who seem to be more judgmental, more racist, more sexist, and more unable to see gray of any kind. They seem to always be trying to prove how tough they are.
Being a professor at a law school, you have a front row seat to the women who will be the future of our field. What do you see in these women and do they feel they have a strong platform of support?
There are so many more women in the field, so there are simply more women they can look to and emulate. They can decide I want to be like Susan or I want to be like Andrea. There are more to pick from. I had nobody to look to so I had to just do the best I could. In that way it is better for women. But the many years of Law and Order and its ilk on television has marred the students’ view of what a lawyer does, what they look like, and what good lawyering looks like or what bad lawyering looks like. I think there are some disturbing trends that I am seeing because of it.
Today there is very little attempt to understand the other side of things, which has lowered civility. What I mean by that is, when I began most people stayed in the public defender’s office or the prosecutor’s office for five, six, seven years and then went on to private practice or to do something else, unless they were moving into management. That was just how it worked. But now, people stay for their entire careers, so the prosecutor that is nasty to me doesn’t have to worry that one day they may be in private practice and have to come to me because they need something. They aren’t planning ever to leave, and that contributes to a lack of civility that I am seeing.
Then there is the “you should look sexy in Court thing” that I am seeing. I think this is the television influence as well. Some young women think that looking lawyerly means wearing a tight skirt, really stacked heals, and something low cut because that is what they see on TV. That is really going backwards. I’m not suggesting that you need to dress in a box or that you can’t try to look nice but there is a professional demeanor that you need to have. What you should be focusing on communicating is your cause, your case, and your client, and not how hot you might be or how much you care about your appearance. Save the sexy suit for the bar and don’t wear it to court. It is very disturbing to me to see women moving backward that way when we fought so hard to be considered on our merits instead of on the package we came in.
Women Criminal Defense Attorneys: Kathleen Zellner’s Dedication to Client’s “Lost Cause” Case Pays Off
by Susan Bozorgi on December 4, 2013
Kathleen Zellner took a case that seemed by all accounts to be a lost cause when she agreed to represent Ryan Ferguson pro bono in late 2009. Ryan Ferguson was convicted of second-degree murder in December 2005 in Colombia, Missouri based on the testimony of two witnesses that were later established to be tainted and perjured. There was no physical evidence that connected Ferguson to the murder, and yet nobody really questioned the murder conviction until early 2006 when 48 hours aired an initial report of the case. After years of hard work and dedication, Ryan Ferguson walked out of jail a free man on November 12, 2013, after serving over a decade in jail. Kathleen Zellner’s zealous representation of him made that seemingly impossible dream a reality.
Zellner shared with Dateline the 10 turning points that led to her client winning his habeas appeal to the Missouri Court of Appeals for the Western District. After the conviction was vacated, based on the overwhelming evidence that pointed to Ferguson’s innocence, the Attorney General made the decision to not retry Ferguson. Zellner put in over 1 million dollars worth of pro bono attorney hours and incurred over $100,000 in costs. She was quoted as saying Ryan Ferguson’s case was on “life support” when she got involved.
Her website outlines the history of the case with links to the briefs that were filed. This is another extraordinary victory for a woman champion who has dedicated her career to the representation of “lost causes” and wrongfully convicted persons. This is not the first time that she has been involved in a case like this. It takes a special person to dedicate herself to fighting for our system’s most forgotten.
In the video below, Ferguson thanks Zellner for her tireless work… and she describes the feeling of elation as “better than winning the Super Bowl!”
by Susan Bozorgi on November 27, 2013
If you have any doubt that women’s issues are becoming more visible, then this toy company will change your mind. Goldie Blox is a company created by a woman named Debra Sterling, an engineer from Stanford who was always bothered by how few women were in her engineering program. So, she created a toy company that is aimed at introducing girls to the joy of engineering.
When I listened to her describe being one of few women in her field, I thought to myself… “This sounds familiar!” Instead of being resigned to her fate as one of a few women in the field, Sterling decided to do something about it. Her message is encouraging and inspiring. Her mission is to change the way that girls play and develop critical thinking, which has a lot to do with loving engineering. Watch the video that was created to promote this new toy…. I absolutely love this!
Imagine a future when girls are encouraged from the outset that they can be anything they want – and they aren’t limited to whatever future dreams arise from playing with Barbie dolls and toy kitchens. During this Thanksgiving season, which is a time to reflect, I am thankful that things are changing for girls and women.
by Susan Bozorgi on November 20, 2013
New York City Criminal Lawyer Sharon L. McCarthy, of Kostelanetz & Fink, LLP, successfully represented former CEO Denis Field of the BDO Seidman accounting firm in a trial that concluded on October 31st with her client being acquitted of all charges. Field was charged in 2009, along with lawyer co-defendant Paul Daugerdas, in the Southern District of New York in a tax-shelter fraud case. Both men had been convicted in 2011, but were granted a new trial based on allegations of juror misconduct.
The second time around, Field was acquitted of all counts, while former lawyer Daugerdas was convicted once again. While the real victory belongs to her client, Sharon McCarthy got the privilege of hearing the two sweetest words any criminal lawyer can hear… Not Guilty. There is nothing that compares!
by Susan Bozorgi on November 13, 2013
Twelve years ago, the New York Times Magazine featured 21 women who had just graduated from law school and were entering jobs in big law firms. The article was appropriately entitled Great Expectations. The women, most of who were overflowing with confidence and optimism, were asked to discuss the gender gap and specifically the effect it had on their life and on their career prospects. It’s a very interesting read.
Just this week, journalist and documentary filmmaker Florence Martin-Kessler revisited these same women in a piece entitled Great Expectation for Female Lawyers, and conducted an Op-Doc Video consisting of interviews with five of the twenty-one women, which examines their perspective today. Martin-Kessler found that of the original 21, only half were in private practice, with some in public interest and several working as full time parents. She said, “What I found most interesting was that their lives were often far more complex than they had predicted. Even the greatest of expectations, it seems, eventually encounter reality.”
I highly recommend that you read the original piece and watch the follow up video, which is embedded below. The contrast between the “great expectations” of these young law school graduates and the reality that they faced in the workplace provides a revealing window into the unique challenges that women face while pursuing a career in the field of law.
by Susan Bozorgi on November 6, 2013
Some of the country’s biggest law firms are putting their money where their mouth is when it comes to supporting women lawyers. Just last week Holland & Knight announced a new initiative aimed at attracting and retaining more women lawyers. The firm expanded their maternity leave benefits to 16 weeks and adoption leave benefits to 10 weeks. They also implemented ramp-up and ramp-down periods, which allow for a grace period to return to normal work levels. The policy is considered the most progressive in Florida and is a strong statement of Holland & Knight’s support of women in the field.
Holland & Knight is not the only law firm that is starting to focus on strategies to retain women lawyers. The ABA reports that a number of firms and attorneys are beginning to see the benefits of supporting women’s business goals. Firms including Mayer Brown and Kirkland & Ellis have utilized Sheryl Sandberg’s book, Lean In, along with the Lean-in Platform Partners Project as a tool to facilitate conversations among women associates and partners within the firm aimed at retention of women lawyers.
Joanna Harsnall, chair of Mayer Brown’s women leadership committee, noted that “attrition is expensive…and attorneys making it through the first five years are running cases and doing hard-core case work; that’s a valuable segment. The cost of implementing lean-in groups is relatively nothing by comparison of what can be gained by firms retaining attorneys.”
The bottom line is that this is good business and, as Linda Myers points out it, it is good business development. She stated, “Lean-in partnering is also natural for client development. Firms have increasing client pressure to deliver more diverse staffing on their matters.”
The takeaway for me is that the conversation regarding women in law and in business is continuing to develop. The conversation does matter. It is and will continue to affect change for women in the field. Let’s face it — the alternative silent approach wasn’t working. I for one am grateful to see the cause of women in law being embraced by a growing number of law firms, and I hope to see the trend continue.
by Susan Bozorgi on October 30, 2013
The New York City Bar Association recently held a female panel discussion called Women Who Ask: How Successful Women Rainmakers Ask for and Bring in Business, featuring two powerhouse women lawyers, Sheila Birnbaum and Nina Gussack. The discussion was moderated by Vivia Chen of The Careerist blog.
Birnbaum spoke about a critical factor that will level the playing field for women lawyers – that there are more women General Counsel than ever before. This one fact should profoundly impact our ability to attract business… but so far it hasn’t had much of an impact. So what can we do to ensure that change happens?
Here is what Birnbaum and Gussack suggest, as Vivia Chen summarized in a blog post on The Careerist:
Be nice—you never know where business will come from. Gussack: “It could be the paralegal that you paid attention to, the assistant you impressed, the expert witness you dazzled. . . . It’s all of a piece.”
Embrace rejection. “Fear of rejection is your worst enemy,” summed up Gussack. She added that men handle rejection much better because “boys in high school know that you have to ask for dates, and they know there’s a good chance they’ll be rejected.” Sooner or later, though, they’ll get a date.
It’s okay to feel depressed and drown your sorrows—for a while. Birnbaum: “I’m a terrible loser; I take it to heart.” Gussack: “There’s more rejection than success.” Have a drink, talk it out, she advised: “Allow yourself one week of wallowing and no more.”
But find out what went wrong, and keep up with the client that got away. Gussack: “Most important thing is figuring out why you didn’t get [the assignment.] Call and ask.” Birnbaum: “You tell [the client who didn't hire you] that if things go bad, we’ll bail you out later.”
Be sociable—but don’t bother with people you can’t stand. Birnbaum: “People want to give business to people they like.” She advised that junior associates take junior people on the business side to lunch. She added, “A lot of your classmates will go in-house—don’t lose track of them. . . . [But] don’t bother if you don’t like them.”
Don’t take up golf or duck hunting—unless you’re into it. Don’t get hung up about how men bond on the golf course or in the woods. Birnbaum: “Don’t ever do something that you don’t like because you think it will lead to business.” Gussack: “Don’t join something that you won’t show up at.” The key, both said, is to do extracurricular activities you actually like.
Don’t be the nice girl at the firm. Nice girls often get screwed on compensation, client credit, and promotion. If male lawyers are trying to bully you out of client credit, fight them. Birnbaum: “You can’t be a nice little girl. . . You have to say, ‘This is mine, and I brought it in,’ or you go [complain] to the person in charge.” Gussack: “It boils down to you can’t act like a girl. . . . Men will say, ‘I’ll take your lunch money or I’ll take your business.’ “
Remember: You got swimsuits. Gussack told a delightful story about the great Yogi Berra in which his granddaughter, a sports writer, told him about her interview with a heartthrob tennis player. The exchange went something like this: “You should date him,” Yogi urged. “He dates a swimsuit model,” replied his granddaughter. “You got swimsuits,” Yogi said.
This is great advice from women that are rainmaking at the highest levels. In fact Nina Gussack is truly one of us, as she practices in both civil litigation and the white-collar field. Today, in an environment where internal investigations and corporate compliance work is abundant, the increase in the number of women GC’s directly affects our ability to attract business. I loved Vivia Chen’s conclusion to her post, “we’ve all got swimsuits. So, ladies, shouldn’t we just dive in?” This couldn’t be any truer for women in criminal defense… let’s face it, if anyone knows how to swim in the deep end, it’s us.
by Susan Bozorgi on October 23, 2013
I can hardly believe it, but tomorrow will mark one year since this blog was officially launched. It’s a significant milestone (for me anyway!) and I have a few thoughts I’d like to share with you.
By far the most rewarding part of writing this blog has been meeting and interviewing so many incredibly talented women from across the country. My hope is that the interviews we feature provide a format for all of us to get to know one another. I had the privilege of interviewing eleven amazing women this year and if you haven’t already done so, please go back and read them. (Click here to see them all in one place.) The responses of these women are inspiring, thoughtful, intimate, and offer invaluable guidance for any woman in the field. Building strong relationships with other women in the field is foundational to our ability to help and support one another.
We also highlighted twelve cases of interest in the media where women were either leading or involved in the defense of the criminally accused. Highlighting the involvement of women in some of the country’s biggest criminal cases is a critical step in achieving change. One of the stated purposes of this blog was “to start building on images and narratives of women in this field so that a lasting picture can be painted. Women are taught not to brag and boast but this has the effect of leaving a void in our own story. I want to change that.” My hope is that highlighting cases involving twelve women in the trenches is a step forward in this regard.
Finally, I have been linking to some of these blog posts on various social media networks, and have been met with some isolated negative comments such as “who cares” or “why does this matter?” My answer is that this is exactly the point. It matters to women. The images and narratives of men succeeding in this field are abundant. We are just doing our best to work toward a level playing field — one post at a time. I have loved doing this blog and look forward to many more great years!
Women Criminal Defense Attorneys: Marjorie Peerce Representing Accountant Recently Indicted in Madoff Fraud
by Susan Bozorgi on October 16, 2013
At the end of last month, after several years, an outside accountant for Bernie Madoff, Paul J. Konigsberg, was Indicted on Fraud charges. Why now? The statute of limitation is about to expire in December. This Superseding Indictment was filed on the eve of the trial starting for five employees and insiders of Madoff who were indicted in 2010. Konigsberg will of course be tried separately. There are suspicions that the Government intends to add even more defendants before the deadline expires.
One of the attorneys that has been representing Konigsberg since 2009 is Marjorie Peerce. Peerce has extensive experience in white-collar defense and has been practicing for over thirty years. She is a partner at Ballard Spahr, LLP in New York City. She is a past president of the New York Council of Defense Lawyers and been named in both Best Lawyer of America and Super Lawyers for many years.
What shocked me about this story was that the Government actually asked the lawyers to agree to extend the legal deadline by which charges must be brought. Marjorie Peerce and co-counsel Reed Brodsky refused to extend the statute of limitations. They absolutely did the right thing. Of course, this decision virtually guaranteed their client the Indictment that immediately followed… but in reality it was inevitable anyway.
I highlight this issue because I can’t seem to understand why the Government feels so free to make such a request. I certainly hope it is not because the Government is used to having requests of this nature agreed to by defense counsel.
Are there criminal lawyers out there who believe that agreeing to extend a deadline of this nature and significance demonstrates their or their client’s goodwill? Or do they believe that they are helping a client avoid an Indictment that will be sure to follow if they don’t agree?
Both of these are flawed approaches to advocacy. I suppose I will accept that there would be that once-in-a-lifetime exception where this rule might need to be broken, but thankfully it seems that lawyers Marjorie Peerce and her co-counsel absolutely understand the seriousness of a request of that nature and know exactly what they are doing.
I will be watching this case and will keep you posted!
by Susan Bozorgi on October 9, 2013
Last week I had the privilege of interviewing Nanci Clarence, who practices in her own San Francisco-based firm, Clarence Dyer & Cohen LLP. She has close to thirty years experience representing individuals and corporations facing criminal investigation or charges. She has been named as one of the “Top 10 Litigators in Northern California” and “Top 75 Litigators in California” and served as the President of the Bar Association of San Francisco. Nanci’s “defender spirit” developed when she served as an assistant federal public defender early on in her career. She then harnessed that passion to create a highly successful private practice. I talk often on this blog about the reality that women are still not involved in white-collar cases in high numbers, but Nanci has broken through that particular glass ceiling. She has been involved in some of this country’s most recognizable white-collar cases. She is in every sense the “Real Deal”, and it was clear from this interview that she puts her heart and soul into defending her clients. I hope you enjoy learning more about Nanci Clarence as much as I did.
What inspired you to become a criminal defense attorney?
To me, peace and quiet is a form of torture. I’ve always liked being in the bustling presence of engaged colleagues and clients, and I especially like bumping up against human flaws and shortcomings. I also have a real problem with bullies. So representing people accused of doing terrible things in a system that is designed to give everyone a fair shake was very appealing to me on a basic level.
When you started out what was the field of criminal defense like for a woman lawyer? How is it different for women today?
When I started out, there were very few women in San Francisco toiling every day in the criminal courts, and only a couple in federal court. Today, there are more of us, but in many ways the challenges are the same. While we’ve proven that we have the skills, smarts and savvy to win cases, we still bump up against barriers in the business world that our male colleagues don’t have to face. Even when we are successful, we are viewed as “exceptional” because we still don’t fit the stereotypical image that people carry around when they picture a defender.
Every day, we step out and prove to our clients, prosecutors, co-counsel and judges that we are effective. But, unfortunately, there is still a tendency — even for smart and successful lawyers — to fail to grasp the advantages of having diversity in a legal team. Every day, I still see courtrooms teeming with white male attorneys and not another woman in sight, and I think “whose interest is being served by this status quo?”
Did you have women that helped mentor you or advance your career? How did this impact you?
After spending my early years as an associate at a Big Law firm and then as an Assistant Federal Public Defender, I was fortunate to start my own law firm with dear friends who also turned out to be the best lawyers I know. We had no money, but we had a fortune in enthusiasm, friendship and determination. Our firm grew up in a criminal defense community, in San Francisco, that is like no other in the world. Because the San Francisco legal scene has not been dominated by ex-prosecutors the way it is in so many cities, especially on the east coast, there was room for purely defense-minded people like us to grow and thrive. And, because we are in San Francisco, there were opportunities for women unmatched anywhere else. We owe a tremendous debt to the women who paved the way—Penny Cooper was a trailblazer. And talented and tenacious colleagues like Cris Arguedas and Karen Snell have always been part of the community that enabled us to be successful.
There is something truly special about San Francisco, and there are great men who have made this a unique place to practice for women. Men like Barry Portman, John Keker and Jim Brosnahan gave us wings when they could have been dismissive of our youthful aspirations. Now, as I enter the second half of my career, the younger lawyers challenge me, and keep my practice fresh. I am very grateful to them.
Current research reflects that gender inequality still exists in the legal profession, how do we change this?
There is still discrimination, and that will change because at its core, law is a meritocracy and women are going to continue to succeed in law.
However, other pressures make criminal defense practice a particularly challenging career choice for women. Despite the fact that much ink has been spilled about trying to find work- life balance, I think the realities of high stakes, high demand criminal cases are always going to pose challenges and we have to be ready to meet them. In criminal cases, our clients come to us on the proverbial “worst day” of their lives. Their careers, families and freedom hang in the balance. This is the kind of practice that often requires us to put our personal needs aside — sometimes on a moment’s notice –and that demand is not likely to subside.
Is there any unique aspect about being a woman that you think either helps or hinders you as a criminal defense attorney?
Though of course it varies widely from individual to individual, I think as a group women tend to be both resourceful and flexible—these are necessary qualities in a successful criminal defense lawyer. Because many women have had to marshal our skills to overcome professional obstacles, we know how to dig deep into problems and find creative solutions.
I can think of many courtroom illustrations of this, but I also recall a harrowing incident that drew on all of my own resources. Years ago, I was in Washington D.C. for a hearing in a very high profile case that was drawing front page news coverage every day. I was sitting in my hotel room preparing for court when a chagrined colleague knocked on the door and confessed that he had slipped while walking on K Street and dropped a thumb drive containing highly confidential case documents into a storm water sewer. The sewer! After a quick Google search revealed that the thumb drive was not likely to be washed into the Potomac River anytime soon, I devised a plan. I hopped into a cab and sped to the A&P Market in Georgetown where I bought a kitchen mop, a pair of panty hose, a dustbin and duct tape. (Also, some dark sunglasses and a ski mask). Later that night, we returned to the scene, and managed to hoist the heavy steel-plated sewer lid up and peered down into the muck. Amazingly, we could see the precious thumb drive a mere 7-8 feet below us! Using the components from the A&P, I quickly assembled an improvised sewer extraction device by attaching the dustbin to the mop with the duct tape and maintaining tension with the stretched (ever resilient) panty hose. While my (increasingly hopeful) colleague shined a flashlight into the sewer and protected me from oncoming traffic, I laid belly-down on the street and slowly-but-surely coaxed the thumb drive into the dustbin, and on up the side of the sewer and into our eager hands. Disaster averted!
What is the best advice you ever received?
The best advice I ever received was to practice with lawyers I respect and love. This advice has carried me through the difficult times and given me a huge sense of satisfaction that comes from knowing that I’ve worked with the most talented lawyers in a generation.
If you could give your younger self any advice what would it be?
When I first began working as a federal public defender representing clients charged with heavy cases and facing draconian sentences, I worried about just about everything. Thirty years later, I still do! The best advice I received—really more like learned wisdom—was to recognize that it is fine to worry. In fact, I’m now sure that all my worrying helps me achieve better results. Who wouldn’t want to be defended by a lawyer who has thought about all the things that possibly could go wrong at trial?
The secret is that while it may be that we worry about everything that could possibly go wrong, we also must accept the central truth that we can’t control everything, nor can we have all the answers. The most important thing is that we trust our own process—of which worrying may well be a central tenet—and then have faith that we have reached the best judgment at the end of that process.
Was there a moment when you knew that you had “made it”?
I remember sitting outside a jail cell waiting to see a client and holding my worn out California bar card in my hand. The bar’s paper stock was even crummier than my public defender business card. But sitting there that night, it hit me that with that card, I could get into jails, meet clients at any time of the day or night, and stand up in court and go toe-to-toe with the best lawyers and judges in the country. I could make a living doing what I had dreamed of doing. I also realized that, with that power, came responsibility. It wasn’t a license to make a buck. It wasn’t just a ticket to prestige and privilege, and it wasn’t an excuse to be arrogant. It was a bolt of lightning in my hand. With it, I could make the world a fairer place, a more just place. I remember realizing that night, at that moment, that I had powerful tool at my disposal in a world that needed a lot of fixing.
What part of being a criminal defense attorney most fuels you? Most drains you?
An effective criminal defense lawyer knows that she needs to be wise, not just clever. When we strike this balance, this becomes so much more than a job– it is the greatest calling in the world.
On the other hand, working in the criminal justice system means struggling against those who lose sight of the need to protect our system, and keep it fair. We have seen a number of high- profile cases in which prosecutors have withheld exculpatory evidence and impeachment material in violation of Brady v. Maryland and Giglio v. United States. We’ve even seen judges look the other way when this happens. This cuts to the heart out of our clients’ right to a fair trial and undermines everyone’s confidence in this system of justice. It drains the life blood out of the most precious part of our democracy.
What is one thing people who know you don’t know about you?
I took up surfing at the age of 40 and I’m really bad at it. There is nothing that makes me happier.