Off the Back: “Do I Really Think I’m Helping Anybody?” - By Stephen Gustitis

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Thursday, May 5th, 2016

It seems I’ve been dangling Off the Back lately . . . regularly advising good clients of bad news. It’s been a headwind, for sure. And not something to share with many. Mostly, it’s a private struggle. And such a dichotomy. Strength on the outside, weakness on the inside. I could not have scripted the human condition any better. Inevitably, the self-doubt follows: Do I really think I’m helping anybody? Gratefully, the answer does not exist in the microcosm of introspection. Rather, it’s found in the macrocosm of the justice system in which we work.

I’m sure you’ve heard this recipe for success. Show up everyday ready for battle. Work harder than anyone else. Out-prepare and out-think your opponent. Take no prisoners. But for even the most experienced criminal defense attorneys this recipe does not guarantee success. Rather, it simply guarantees the bona fide outworking of our adversarial approach to resolving disputes. A system where evidence is tested. A system in which the State is put to their burden of proof. A system where jurors are compelled to search their hearts for scarcely a shred of reasonable doubt. Nothing could be more important to maintaining the integrity of this system than our effort and personal sacrifice. Consequently, when we labor like warriors we help everybody by assuring the system works as designed.

Introspection still serves a purpose, however. The moment a verdict comes back worse than expected you feel your creative energy invested during the last weeks or months may have been a waste. The unavoidable moment in life for every criminal trial lawyer. You may wonder where you went wrong. Maybe kicking yourself for not doing things differently. Maybe believing the client had a good chance for an acquittal. Thinking you should have beaten the plea offer. Despite your great effort the results are, too often, unsatisfying. These instances eventually become the moments upon which we reflect . . . our introspection. The moments we make decisions to change for the better. But only after we’ve put the case behind us and we look forward can introspection serve its purpose. This is the time to pack up your gear, go home, and not look back.

What we do is art, and sometimes extraordinary art is only appreciated by a few. Even the best criminal lawyers on the planet lose cases. It’s inevitable and possibly desirable at times. Investing everything you have into a case, and then losing, has a humbling effect. Importantly, humble lawyers are often the most credible lawyers. And credible lawyers win cases. Credible lawyers help people—from the intake interview through case disposition. And whether good news or bad, our personal sacrifice is vital to the outworking of our adversarial process. Regardless of how we feel when a case is over our best effort helped more than just one client. It helped us all by sustaining the integrity of the criminal justice system.