Little David, with his pitiful slingshot, vs. the mighty Goliath. In a nutshell, that’s how it felt to me for much of my career as a public defender. Now, with years of recovery in Al-Anon, I realize that so much of my perception of my role as a defender was tied up in my codependency, my need to rescue, and my need to prove myself worthy. Not all defenders feel as I did and not all defenders choose that line of work for the reasons I did. But for those who have, I hope my story can shed some light on the unconscious motivations some of us experience. I have come to learn that, while the job of defender is unquestionably very stressful and tough emotionally, my unconscious motivations were the deep root of my depression and prolonged suffering.
The role of a defender is unique in that every day somebody’s freedom is at stake, and if you slack up, do less than you should, pay less attention, a client will pay. Added on top of that, you work with clients who didn’t choose you, and who start the relationship with grave doubts about your ability and your willingness to put up a good fight.
I was a public defender for 20 years. For all of that time, and for years before, I suffered untreated depression. After years in the Lawyer Assistance Program (LAP) and Al-Anon, I can see how this job I loved not only fueled the depression, but also fed my wounded ego in ways that prevented me from asking for help.
The stress of being a defender was exacerbated for me because I held myself accountable for outcomes.
The job of public defender is beset with obstacles. I felt like everyone was against me—prosecutors, judges, and even my clients. There were times I felt I was treated badly by a judge just because I was “on my client’s side.” Being a public defender and representing underdog clients, who most often already had many social, economic, and racial cards stacked against them, pushed all my buttons. I internalized many of these factors that were out of my control, and they accentuated my pre-existing feelings of not being good enough. As a consequence, I doubled my efforts to achieve successful outcomes for my clients, unconsciously thinking I could prove those judges or whomever wrong about my clients, and about me.
The healthy part of me responded to what I perceived as disparate treatment towards my clients with outrage and a determination to give each client the kind of defense a rich person could buy from a big law firm. The wounded part of me made it my responsibility to fix this broken system, and when I could not, to berate myself as inadequate. I can see now how the frustrations of dealing with a deck stacked so heavily against me and my clients fed my own feelings of powerlessness and my internal drive to make things right for my clients and myself.
Dealing with judges and prosecutors was always hard. But the part of being a defense attorney that really pushed all my “sick buttons” was the relationships with clients. A sad truth about being a public defender is that our clients make it exceptionally hard to assist them. Client mistrust tore at my sense of self-worth. Nobody wants a public defender. You’re always seen as second rate, not a real lawyer. Some clients never seemed to understand that I was actually a lawyer, a graduate of a reputable law school, and that I passed a bar exam. Some think that a public defender is a breed apart, or at least that we do this job because we couldn’t find any other. Because of this bias by clients and others, I worked endless hours to get the best result—a not guilty verdict, a good plea deal, a great sentence. And when I did the work, and the result was not the one I or the client wanted, I believed it had to be all my fault. Not the client’s fault, not the bad facts of the case, but me—I just wasn’t good enough. After years of healing, I can see that I never needed to carry that burden. It was never about me or my worth. I was never in control. I just needed to believe I was at that time.
The mystique of being a defense attorney kept me from getting the help I needed.
An equally important insight for me, now that I’ve been in 12-step recovery all these years, is how my bruised ego fed off the mystique of being a defense attorney. I came to see myself as a trial attorney, and I had confidence in my trial skills. After trying a lot of cases, and feeling that I had earned my stripes, I believed that I could try any case. When I got to a courtroom to start a trial, my feeling was, “Let’s go to work.” Roll up your shirtsleeves, buckle down, and do what has to be done. I believed myself to be among the warrior elite. That felt really good. Membership in the club of defense attorneys gave me an external affirmation that I was worthy. It also let me deny that I had any kind of emotional problem. In this inner circle, there was nothing wrong with being a workaholic. In fact, it was a badge of honor to put aside your own wishes and desires, to sacrifice for the good of the work. I certainly could not acknowledge that this work ethic was harming me physically, mentally, and emotionally and depriving me of any balance in my life. That way was the way of wimps, and no good trial lawyer wants to think of himself or herself as a wimp.
I do not mean by this article to suggest that now that I have some recovery from my depression and can see these patterns more clearly that I regret the years I spent defending clients. I am still very proud of the work I did on their behalf. Being a good defense attorney means you go all the way all the time for your clients, within the bounds of the law. I think what I’ve learned from the healing work of the last years is that I could have done the job at far less cost to myself by realizing that I was just as entitled to my care and concern as anyone on whose behalf I was working.
The real satisfaction that I felt as a public defender was worth some sacrifice, but I am glad I can honestly say now that I paid too high a price. Most of the lawyers I know— defenders or not—have paid a high price for working like I did. We live on adrenaline. Health problems develop from the stress. A personal life, if you have one, suffers. Problems of alcohol and depression are rampant. And sadly, the pride of being among the warrior elite so often keeps us from asking for help.
If I ran the world, I would start training young lawyers—especially young defenders—early on how to protect themselves from the stresses of work by finding balance in their lives, by learning to separate their work from their egos, by practicing meditation or some other form of contemplation. That advice early on in my career as a public defender could have made the burdens of defending against all the odds less difficult to carry.
I wish I had asked for help sooner. When I finally did reach out to LAP and started to get some relief, my work became less about proving myself—I could do a good job and let go of the outcome. For any warrior elite reading this article who may be struggling as I did with depression or codependency, I want to assure you that the only thing you have to lose by calling LAP and asking for help is your misery. Hope and help are available.Posted by