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.