Women Criminal Defense Attorneys: Interview with Andrea Lyon

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.

One Response to “Women Criminal Defense Attorneys: Interview with Andrea Lyon”

  1. Pam Hargrave-Thomas says:

    Andrea is a great lady & a great writer & mentor. I see so many women in all professions 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 which contributes to a lack of civility.

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