Marco Polo describes a bridge, stone by stone.
“But which is the stone that supports the bridge?” Kublai Khan asks?
The bridge is not supported by one stone or another,” Marco answers, “but by the line of the arch that they form.”
Kublai Khan remains silent, reflecting. Then he adds: “Why do you speak to me of the stones? It is only the arch that matters to me.”
Polo answers: “Without stones there is no arch.”1
He was an incredibly imaginative writer, Italo Calvino – the sort of dexterity with words and images that make you want to put the book down from time to time and just clap. In Invisible Cities, he has a young Marco Polo talking to an aging Kublai Khan – the former regaling the latter with some tales of the magic that used to be his empire, so many beautiful moments spun from exploring the simplest of things: bridges, for example. Arches and stones. Eight weeks after the Concho Valley Public Defender’s Office has officially began accepting appointments, those are precisely what I find myself thinking about: arches, and the stones that compose them.
In an earlier article, I wrote about how we had set out to lay the foundation for a brand‑new public defender’s office in rural West Texas. It was an intensely personal piece: one focused on how we sought to discover the values we collectively held dear and rooting our earliest decisions in those values. It dwelt a great deal on the importance, to us, of building an enduring culture – one that emerged in the most welcome way from the collection of people and experiences who had decided, for whatever reason, that San Angelo was the place they wanted to be a public defender. The joy of that stage in our creation was the time we were able to dedicate not just to putting the stones in place in a way that felt right to us, but finding and examining the stones themselves. And now, it’s the arch that we’re looking at – what does it mean to be eight weeks into an open and operating office, our gaze shifting from behind to ahead, with so many decisions and people gathered in the most wonderfully unique side‑by‑side way. Now that the stones are together, the question: what is their strength? How can it sustain? The line of the arch – is it strong?
Somewhere within these questions lies the thrust of where we are in as an office, the “you’re open, what now?” stage. It is a continual process of examination and re‑examination: those decisions we made, those processes we set up, those values we grounded ourselves in – how are they now that they’re being battle‑tested?
With that, I’d like to discuss what our phase two of opening a public defender’s office has been like: the assessment. And reassessment. And reassessment…
Some of my more formative professional moments have taken place in restaurants that are about to open. The team is hired and trained, the menu is the product of months of taste‑testing and experimentation, and there comes a moment of recognition that things are as ready as they ever will be. And then, the opening. The kitchen runs behind, the server stumbles with the register, the drinks come out slowly. Depending on the strength of the restaurant’s founding moments, what happens then isn’t a crumbling, it’s a resilience – some recognition that what we prepared for needs tweaking, and it is only on the strengths of our preparation that the swift and lasting adjustment is possible. And, invariably, good restaurants do just that: recognize the failing, pivot to the fix, and ground it all in the notion that this was precisely the un‑ expected turn that a strong operation can handle.
For our office, there was great emphasis on just that, that what we are setting up will, at times, break – it’s bound to. The issue, though, is not in the breaking, it is in the opportunity that presents as a result – how to fix.
One of the questions that guides our office is: “Whoever wrote the rule?” The task here is to look at a thing we’re dealing with, recognize the traditional forces at play, and then explore space around adventurous solutions. Or, as James McDermott might call this: “Why say no to something unless you have to say no to it?”
An example of this, for our office, has to do with magistration. I have only ever worked in rural public defender offices, and though I have always wanted to be present in some capacity at the moment of magistration, it has never really been functionally possible. As an office, we decided that based on some of the particularities of our service area that we could be present at magistration from day one.
The rule – especially in rural areas – has always been that an assortment of forces has prevented counsel from being able to be present magistration proceedings. We explored this as an office – examined our personnel, the sustainability of our decision, and the role we wanted to play by being there – and decided that it was the right move. And, it has paid dividends – the early data confirms what is hardly surprising: counsel at a bond‑setting leads to good results.
Leadership is a team sport
I will always believe, in every phase of existence, a public defender’s office needs to create space for both delivery and reception of divergent views. Your stroke of brilliance might feel to everyone else as something short‑sighted, and the only way to check the strength of what you’re building is to gauge how comfortably disagreement is voiced, how readily it is welcomed, and what action steps result. There may be no better skill in these moments than some sort of silence, coupled nicely with some follow‑up questions.
Critical to the doors‑newly‑open phase of our office have been the regular meetings of both our leader‑ ship team and entire staff where we have tried to create space to report back on things that work and things that don’t. This can create uncertainty and concern – fine. In an ideal outcome, the temporary nature of each of those emotions turns to reward and confidence when the expressed concerns are attentively handled. There is something transcendently human about being heard, and if it’s something we preach regarding our client engagement, it should certainly be something we bring back to the office.
Humility is a value that matters tremendously to our office, and it means so many different things: that no single person is bigger than what we’re trying to do, that there’s a perpetual recognition of what more we can learn and how much we can grow, and that how we operate – and the decisions that guide our function – are ones that feel most right to us, where we are. The challenge in a series of articles like these is, for me, a personal one: how do I share what feels true for us without presuming that there is some transitive value to everyone else?
And the answer? I have no idea. My hope is that there might be some marginal utility to the simple sharing of a lived experience of assisting in the creation of a public defender office. I have learned there may be solidarity in uncertainty, that there may be comfort in going to bed at night wondering about the rightness of a decision, that there may be calm in knowing that this work can be rugged, and that all of it is magnificently okay.
Stones will gather into bridges – what a privilege it is to do the gathering.