Pandemic at the PDO

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I come into the office maybe twice a month. It’s so strange that it is something I can quantify in months. When I left in March, I thought that we might be gone for two weeks. I left yogurt in my secret, fire marshal-unapproved under-desk office fridge – that’s how confident I was I’d be back relatively soon.  The government machine that grinds men’s bones doesn’t usually trust work-from-home efforts, in my humble experience.

I ran into a coworker at the checkout line in the grocery store; both of us looking sheepishly down at our groaning shopping carts. He grinned, “This is wild, isn’t it? I mean, it’s terrible, but it’s kind of exciting.” It was exciting, navigating through the apocalyptic empty displays, outsmarting the other shoppers: no rice in the rice section, but if you looked in international foods, on the very bottom shelf, 10 lbs of basmati for a bargain price; no toilet paper, but plenty of baby wipes; judging that others are buying out all the raw flour but none of the cold medicine. A sense of mild superiority, of hunting and gathering to survive, of feathering one’s nest.

But now, here we are, some immeasurable amount of time later with a reliable supply chain, and I’m sitting on my back patio writing this instead of trying to figure out how to dim the ubiquitous florescent lights in my office enough to stop giving me a headache but not too much that I have to strain my eyes to see (oh, the decrepitude of advancing years!). I have abandoned my stuffy courtroom wear for the schadenfreude of “athleisure.” I revel in the solitude my secret loner soul has craved for all these years in tall buildings full of people. And yet…

Public Defenders’ offices, including my own, are going through sea-changes right now. At least, it feels that way to me from the inside. There’s not a lot of records kept that I could access, not a lot of numbers yet. But recent, rapid increases in funding for PDO’s across Texas are seemingly making for strange bedfellows with pandemic protocols. As my office stretches to find attorneys to fill new positions, young attorneys with little experience are often coming straight from nascent private practices into felony dockets.  Outside of Texas, this is pretty common, but within Texas, PDO jobs have historically been competitive and awarded to more experienced attorneys who don’t need as much supervision. This has created a gaping chasm in training and management of new lawyers, which is significantly worsened by COVID.

Private practice trial attorneys are often forced into bravado. Obtaining paying clients requires flash and confidence, which, at first, often comes in the form of over-confidence. I have these cringe-y memories of myself as a young attorney desperately trying to act like I knew what I was doing. I shudder when I realize that some people believed me. If it weren’t for the delicate, ego-sparing assistance of a few kind and brilliant mentors, I would have made some truly horrible mistakes in my brief time as a private lawyer. Moving into the larger and less-lonely world of public defender offices working shoulder-to-shoulder with much more experienced attorneys changed the way I do everything.

I see the same kind of bluster and ego that I had in a lot of the new attorneys my office has hired, but in the absence of gentle mentoring and accessible peer attorneys, in the weird vacuum of Zoom court, I worry that they are left teaching themselves how to do this work, which is unfair to both them and their clients. Stopping by someone’s office to chat about a case will always be less formal and more congenial than having to pick up the phone and make a call to solicit advice. COVID has eliminated that possibility.

PDO’s breed a type of “no-snitching” culture where formal complaints or observations to superiors about the poor conduct or performance of other lawyers in the office is taboo. Compounding this is that middle-management staff are often ill-equipped to handle attorney discipline or training since they are largely promoted because of their tenure with the office and successes at trial. While these are admirable skills to warrant promotion, they are not skills that translate into management or mentorship abilities, and many great trial attorneys are poor supervisors who lack the ability to delegate authority. This is coupled with the difficulty inherent in managing people who are drawn to criminal defense practice, a notoriously anti-authoritarian and prideful group if ever there was one.

Related to the increases in budgets are increases in the number of cases appointed to PDO’s. As most criminal defense attorneys are all too aware, prosecutors seem unmotivated to move cases or even answer their phones in the midst of the pandemic, even when defendants are sitting in jail exposed to the virus or have languished on bond for years. Since there has been no risk of trial for several months, individual caseloads seem to have grown, apparently a result of the idea that if an attorney is not going to go to trial, they can handle more cases overall, which is true in the short-term. As trials start to resume, trial attorneys are finding themselves with heavy dockets of old cases on top of an expectation that they will continue to intake a higher number of new cases.

I don’t mean to be all criticism and darkness. I am also sweetness and light. There are good things, too. Forcing courts and old-school attorneys to adapt to technological advances has been largely beneficial. Off-docket resets and minimized appearances are definitely time-savers and prevent clients from having to cough up money for public transport or parking, stand in ridiculous lines, and miss work to go to court for nothing to happen.  It feels like a blessing not to have to sit in the gallery for an hour on the day you (of course) forgot to charge your phone, waiting for a late judge to come toddling in from a leisurely brunch to start his docket.  I think I fume a lot less.

Personally, I like the option of being able to work from home on days that I can’t have any distractions- when I don’t want to be rude to the coworkers dropping by to chat but I really need to get this thing done now so please stop talking about your freaking cat’s hysterectomy. And even though my commute isn’t terribly long, it’s amazing what a timesaver it is to avoid it and avoid the serpentine parking situation of the courthouse complex.

That said, I miss the camaraderie of my old office. I miss the collaboration and the chatter and the support, and I’ll admit, I even miss the drama. It was nice to know that in a contested hearing, half my office might show up in the courtroom to show support. It loses something on video conference.  I can’t imagine things returning to the way they were before all this. The days of standing next to a client during a plea with my hand on the back of his jail garb are gone. The idea of several colleagues ordering a pizza together, picking up pieces with our hands from the same box, eating together, laughing and spewing germs all over the conference room seems unthinkable now. The intimacy of having someone in my office sans mask chatting with the door closed feels almost indecent.

I believe in the model of the Public Defender’s Office with all my heart, life, and career. There is not a job I would rather do. I know that what I am witnessing is something our country is (hopefully) going through in a larger sense, too: the painful birth of a more progressive movement at a critical and bizarre time in history. I endeavor to be proud to say I was here now, was part of this hard thing and pushed through it into something better. I hope everyone in our office, at the end of their career, will be able to say that.

TCDLA
TCDLA
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