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Friday, December 22, 2006

Advice For The Lovelorn Law Student

In the past few months, several of my friends have told me that their children have decided to become lawyers, and even more terrifying, criminal defense lawyers.

Since I am nearing the end of a long, dismal career in that field, I feel qualified to advise the young in this one area. More than that, I feel it is my obligation.

Don't make the same blunder I did, please!

Thirty six years ago I entered into this quagmire still flushed with that optimism that JFK had inspired when I was a Junior in High School - you remember: “...The torch has been passed to a new generation ... Ask not blah blah blah, but what yada yada yada ...”

In law school I was brainwashed by the hope that the legal system might change the world. Courts had discovered civil rights and civil liberties, corrected past injustices, led fights against discrimination, abuses of police power, narrow mindedness of all brands.

My mistake was to believe that this era of enlightenment was the norm, would progress. In the telescope of years, I see now that it was a kind of Golden Age, a tsunami that comes rarely and yields to the bitter reaction that is society’s norm.

By the way: "tsunami" is a better metaphor than "pendulum" because experience teaches that return to balance is not inevitable - once given up, liberties are harder to win back. Societal stasis favors Order over the chaos of freedom. Take a poll among your peers. How many would agree that it is better to release a guilty person than convict an innocent one?

In my time, the tide receded almost immediately, at first impelled by good intentions as always. In the Seventies, the feminist movement raised consciences about injustices in rape laws. Then came the Drug War, spousal abuse, child abuse, gangs, guns, victims’ rights - hysterical responses to increasing crime rates then blamed on the progressive reforms of the previous decade.

That the real causes of the upswing in crime were demographics, economics, drug technology, not the basics of the legal system hardly mattered. Perception counts more than truth. Every change was perceived as needed reform, not dangerous tampering with Justice.

Nonetheless, The System has crashed. Judges from top to bottom, drawn from the ranks of prosecutors, now see themselves as prosecutors in robes. Draconian laws, many passed through our “democratic” Initiative Process mandate long prison sentences while also making it easier to convict. Prisons are hellholes, overcrowded with hopeless exiles, death row packed with waiting skeletons. Ghetto streets are filled with a permanent underclass of guys with rap sheets.

Most of the advances of the Golden Age have been cancelled.

Appellate courts - federal and state - permit most hearsay and illegally seized evidence. The most egregious violations of rights and rules in trials are deemed “harmless error” if the appellate judges make up their own minds that the defendant was guilty anyway. No matter that the prosecutor withheld evidence, jurors lied, the defense lawyer slept. “Strict interpretation” of The Constitution and the “will of the voters” uphold laws that would have been struck down 30 years earlier.

It is not much fun to be a defense lawyer anymore, especially a public defender.

The L.A. Office grew enormously over the years and evolved into a cog of The System. The old motto was: Provide the most effective lawyers for the lowest cost. Now, it is: Provide cost effective lawyers, period. The change in emphasis is subtle but disastrous. Morale is at an all time low.

Imagine being assigned to defend a shoplifter with two prior felony convictions who can be sentenced to life in prison. A one day trial with no issues to argue, before a judge who last week was prosecuting these cases. The trial DA may sympathize - she’ll go to her supervisor for permission to offer a plea bargain - “strike a strike” and take a plea for six years in prison.

Back in the day, we felt we were the “best and the brightest,” winning against The System because we were smarter, more dedicated, more prepared than anyone in the courtroom. It was still hard to prevail, we lost more than we won, and it took a psychic toll. Now, it is impossible. Not only is The System stacked against the defense, prosecutors are the perceived heroes of The Culture. Most believe that it is noble to defend victims, not criminals.

So here's my conclusion:

I know now that nobility for lawyers is a snare and a delusion. But if you must become a lawyer and still want to think yourself noble, save the environment, or a doomed animal, or an artist ... but most of all, make lots of money and save some so you can tell them all to screw themselves.