Fault Lines
17 February 2019

Criminal Lawyers Have Feelz Too

December 13, 2016 (Fault Lines) — In the book, “Bonfire of the Vanities,” Tom Wolfe presented a farcical version of a young Assistant District Attorney too caught up in aping his view of what it meant to be a tough prosecutor to realize that he had crossed into absurd and irredeemable territory. Wolfe’s ADA wanted to adopt “Irish machismo,” which means that he wanted to fit with his notion of what cops and prosecutors should really be like. He wanted to be “a real commando and rub shoulders with the police and know how to confront defendants and witnesses and intimidate them when the time came.”

In many ways, Wolfe’s novel is a relic of its time, and no doubt much has changed in the nearly 30 years since it was first published. Yet, that particular micro-culture he described always rang true with me.

Something draws criminal lawyers to this particular niche, and it certainly isn’t the money. For many, it is the chance to play out a fantasy as either an honorary cop or an honorary defendant. We choose this role, in some part, to live vicariously through the interests we represent in court.

But this attitude comes at a cost. Wolfe’s ADA engages in all sorts of misconduct and loses his job. For us non-fictional lawyers, the costs might not be as cinematic, but they can be no less dire.

Being a lawyer is often a punishing, unforgiving and thankless job that exists solely because of conflict. It is, by definition, a profession built on unpleasantness. Criminal law takes that even farther, dwelling only in the darkest corners of life.

As a result, the first thing any new criminal lawyer learns is how to pretend to be tough and impervious to the misery raining down on a daily basis. No doubt this serves an important purpose. Lawyers are advocates who can’t do the job if they can’t handle the pressure. No matter the heinous subject matter, a criminal lawyer has to always be ready and able to do the job.

Striving for toughness therefore isn’t a problem in itself. Indeed, toughness is a legitimate professional virtue.

But what lawyers aren’t taught, and where this machismo sells us out, is how to cope with the cost of courtroom toughness. New attorneys are almost always put in shared offices where they are taught, in addition to how to actually practice law, how to pretend not to be bothered by their work. Lawyers learn quickly that the bleaker the subject matter or the particular rotation, the more off-color the gallows humor must become. We are shown how to make light of our caseloads, impugn the decency and honor of everyone who isn’t immediately in the room with us, and, above all, act like none of this can ever bother us.

New hires also learn to drink like lawyers. When bitching and moaning fails, we hit the bar so we can bitch and moan with greater gusto. And we hold it as a badge of honor that we can show up hung over and run our list and push paper around and yell and scream and curse and fight, day after day after day, and never ever admit that it takes a toll on us.

Respectfully, this is a fucked up way to live.

Across all areas of law, lawyers are a depressed, drunk bunch, who are much more likely to commit suicide than the average person. I can only assume that criminal lawyers are on par with the rest of the profession, although I would suspect from my own experiences that we are perhaps worse. Anecdotally, in just over six years of practice, I have personally known two lawyers who committed suicide.

While it isn’t known whether being a lawyer causes these problems or merely attracts people prone to these issues, the fact remains that many, many of us are hurting.

Criminal lawyers also deal with vicarious trauma. Which is clinical term for the fact that when you deal with fucked up shit all day, every day, it makes you feel bad. Sex crimes prosecutors who hear from child rape victims all day tend to have hard times leaving their work at the office. So do public defenders who develop personal relationships with people facing decades in prison.

But despite these horrible facts of the profession, the culture of criminal law practitioners tells us to suck it up. Be drunk at work if you must, but please, please, don’t share a human emotion or admit vulnerability.

What we really need, of course, is to open up and share our vulnerability with each other. We have to show up and we have to fight for our clients, or victims, or do whatever role we have taken on. But we shouldn’t have to do that without ever admitting to each other that it isn’t always easy, or pretend it doesn’t take a toll on us. Simply admitting this truth goes against every part of the criminal law culture, but it also goes a long way towards making life manageable for those who work in this field.

10 Comments on this post.

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  • Richard Kopf
    13 December 2016 at 10:05 am - Reply


    Great post on a subject that needs utter transparency. Seeking help doesn’t mean you’re weak or a narcissist. At least that’s what my long-term therapist (who also holds a law degree) keeps telling me.

    Again, thanks for revealing the secret lives that many of us live and sometimes kill ourselves as a result of such living. All the best.


    • Caleb Kruckenberg
      13 December 2016 at 4:29 pm - Reply

      Thanks Judge Kopf. I vacillated on writing it at all, so I’m happy to have the input. I guess judges have feelz too.

  • CLS
    13 December 2016 at 11:38 am - Reply


    I’ve read your post three times today and am still struggling with the best way to respond.

    We are in complete agreement this is a “fucked up way to live.” How each of us gets to this point involves different stories and different circumstances. The end result, unfortunately, for many of us is to shrug. You and I have been at this for the same amount of time, and the best coping mechanism I can tell you for living this life besides cultivating a really sick sense of humor is getting really good at shrugging and moving on.

    There was a time when I lost a case under some bullshit circumstances. Saying I was pissed off would be an understatement. I reached out to an attorney with far more experience than I expressing my frustration at the utter [ableist slur] of a verdict. His response was so powerful I copied it and put it in my phone for the times I needed to remember why we do this.

    “The life we chose is by definition filled with failure. We accept that or we can’t do it and should find another line of work. The key to survival and saving people is to be able to let it go and move on. It’s hard to just shake it off, but that’s something all old crim lawyers in common, the ability to lose and start fresh the next day. Without it, we couldn’t survive this job…[Tolerance] for the ambiguity of what we do is the only way to not go crazy.”

    I submit the best way to start is by learning to shrug, shake it off, and move on. Continued discussions of how this job sucks and how we need to be “mindful” of our “vulnerability” is Jeena Cho’s job, not ours.

    • shg
      13 December 2016 at 11:58 am - Reply

      Damn mean but wise old lawyer who told you that.

      • CLS
        13 December 2016 at 12:10 pm - Reply

        I know, right? How dare someone stop me from wallowing in self-pity with truly moving words.
        I might…MIGHT just have microgtriggered my agressivespace.

    • Caleb Kruckenberg
      13 December 2016 at 4:41 pm - Reply

      I agree with you that we all have to figure out what works. People flame out all the time because they never figure out what works for them. There’s also no doubt that shrugging and moving on is the advice that lots of us need to follow. If we care too much or too deeply it gets in the way of doing the job.

      I disagree though that being mindful of our vulnerability is not something criminal lawyers are supposed to talk about. Everybody is vulnerable. I tell judges about my clients’ vulnerabilities all the time. My vulnerabilities allow me to empathize with my clients’. I think it is a mistake to treat recognition of our struggles as weakness.

      • shg
        13 December 2016 at 4:54 pm - Reply

        Different people have different issues. While it’s become fashionable in the past few years to characterize them as “vulnerabilities,” many of us never spent too much time wallowing in our own misery. First, because we just weren’t particularly miserable. Second, because we found wallowing to be ineffective, a waste of time. We were more inclined to fix problems than feel badly about them. That’s not a criticism of others for feeling differently, but how we choose to deal with our world.

  • anon
    14 December 2016 at 1:37 pm - Reply

    Oh my, you lawyers have it so very hard. You have to go home after work and feel terrible about this nasty system while guys like me get a free stay at Club Fed. Boo fucking hoo.

    If you’re too vulnerable to handle being a lawyer, find another job, but don’t whine about it. Trust me, you’ve got it way easier than the guy next to you.

    • David Meyer-Lindenberg
      14 December 2016 at 3:32 pm - Reply

      I realize this will blow your mind, but Caleb’s post and your claim that CDLs have it way easier than their clients are totally compatible.

      Now I feel bad for housekeeping, ’cause they’re gonna have to clean up all that brain fluid when they find you in the morning.

    • Dwight Mann f/k/a “dm”
      14 December 2016 at 4:25 pm - Reply

      Ever heard the one about not doing the crime if you can’t do the time? Or, alternately, it’s our party and we can cry if we want to, cry if we want to, cry if we want to! Or, alternately, boo fucking hoo to you too.