Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Part 2 - Why Are You A Criminal Defense Lawyer?


Last year Forum reprinted an article (Volume 33) that I authored which had originally appeared in the San Diego Criminal Defense Bar newsletter. That article said in relevant part:

“How many of us are actively involved in the issues of global warming, health care, Iraq, corporate fraud and greed, healthcare, education, poverty, discrimination, capital punishment? But, you say, CDBA isn’t the right place for these issues. To this I reply, why not? Criminal defense lawyers are, in my view, perfectly suited to taking on the larger issues destroying our country. They’re trained, smart, tough and take on the government on a daily basis. Who do you trust more to do the right thing — a politician or a criminal defense lawyer?........... These are serious times for our country and I don’t see too many people doing anything about the forces of evil. No one else is going to win these battles except warriors. I think that’s us.”

Since that time, things have deteriorated even further. I paid close attention to the firing of Carol Lam, the United States Attorney in San Diego and her colleagues and watched the subsequent disintegration of the Department of Justice into an evangelical group of lawyers playing politics with, among other things, the Civil Rights Act. There was a great hue and cry from the Judiciary Committees of both houses, the press had something to feed their talking heads and Alberto Gonzalez is still in office. In Pakistan when the President fired the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, the lawyers took to the streets in their suits and ties and rioted. In San Diego the City Council just cut funding for the homeless shelter this winter in approximately the same amount of tax dollars they spent on hiring their own lawyers because they were worried about criminal liability arising from the pension debacle.

The list goes on and on. What I still haven’t read or heard anything about is our local criminal defense lawyers doing anything about the parade of constitutional horrors that are occurring in our country. The toughest litigators who regularly take on the government to defend a drunk driving client or murderer seem to feel that these systemic problems are something they have no control over or are too busy to deal with. Should we sit idly by while Libby gets his sentence commuted and 20 year old kids are serving 10 years for a drug conviction? Doesn’t this have anything to do with our own lives and those of our clients? Perhaps we think Washington is some far away place that we are powerless to do anything about. But we can sure try.

I looked over the CDLC/CDBA statement of purposes which appears on the new website. One of the stated purposes is to “Promote justice, adherence to legal principle and the rule of law”. Since the administration of our country controls the Justice Department and has taken over the sentencing powers of the federal court by taking care of their friends who get convicted and are intent on violating the law - the question becomes who is going to intervene? Isn’t it the lawyers charge to right injustice? Isn’t that what we are supposed to do?

President Clinton had a great idea. He held a symposium of business leaders who were charged $15,000 to attend and, in addition, had to commit to taking on a project to solve one of the world’s problems. It was and still is a large success. Why would they do this? Why is Bill Gates devoting his life to giving away money? Why are there successful civil lawyers who travel to the South and spend years defending death penalty cases pro bono? The answer is simple. It’s good work. It’s a lawyer’s work. And if you do it you will be rewarded in ways that mean more than money and which you can’t understand until you’ve done it.

Rants really don’t mean much unless there is a call to action. Here’s what I suggest.

Criminal defense lawyers who can afford it (and you know who you are), take a sabbatical and choose something that really bothers you - whether it is homeless funding, secrecy of government records, denial of health care, conservation, global warming or any other issue where you have an interest and feel you can accomplish something – and go for it. Organize or litigate or badger or do what lawyers do to effect change. For those who can’t afford a sabbatical, make it a part of your practice to do some kind of pro bono work aimed to correct some of the problems of the world. For a quick look at what the possibilities are, check out the following lawyers:

Not only is this work good for a lawyer’s soul, but the world needs more of these kinds of lawyers. Besides that, it could even turn out to be quite a bit of fun.

Tom Adler
Founder and Past President-CDBA
Past President-CDLC


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