This September, I will have been at my job for almost a full year! This year has been a rocket ship ride full of challenges/learning experiences, excitement, and many conversations that started with, “So how do you like being a lawyer?”
Answer: I love it. It’s the most difficult, frustrating, stressful job but I truly absolutely love it. I feel like I was designed for this. [Even though I often wish it was more like these jokes.] I can’t imagine myself doing anything else and as small as I sometimes feel, every day I am becoming a better and better attorney and I’m obsessed.
To celebrate my upcoming anniversary, every Monday of August I will sharing my answers to some of the most common questions posed about my job.
FIRST UP: How can you defend someone you know is guilty?
First of all, this question is based on the assumption that a lawyer’s job is to help the accused walk away. *Buzzer sound* Wrong. On a practical level – walking away is not always the goal, and it’s rarely even possible. On a theoretical level – a lawyer’s role in the system as a whole is not letting criminals walk free – it’s about balance.
The American judicial system is built on a few fundamentals, which we happen to love: the presumption of innocence, the power of people against their government, and rights of the accused. You’ve heard of the presumption of innocence: it means that (generally speaking) when the government accuses you of breaking the law, they have to prove it to an impartial third party (judge or jury). Lawyers have to defend the innocent along with the guilty because otherwise this presumption would not exist.
The power of the people is fundamental because our entire government (and, as a function of government, the judicial system) is designed to attempt to combat the basic presumption that everyone in society is hungry for power, and if not properly checked, they will steal too much power and take over. The three branches of government are intended to check each other’s power grabs, the state and federal governments check each other’s power grabs, and the people and government as a whole check each other, too.
When the government (through a police officer and then prosecutor [i.e. government’s attorney]) accuses a person of a crime, the person needs a lawyer on his side to keep the government’s power in check. If the government is not challenged in every case, even when the accused is truly guilty, their power will be unstoppable.
(Side note: I know to some, the system already looks pretty rigged and justice is not being done. All these justifications are in an ideal world, and if our system works perfectly. And even the failure of our system does not mean that attorneys should not represent the guilty – it means more needs to be done, not less.)
Finally, you know about the Constitution, right? That’s the document that the old guys back in the day wrote to set up the federal government. When they were done, some of those guys were like, “Um, what about the people, though? What do they get?” Good point, Ben, let’s make sure it’s super clear what rights the people have: enter, the Bill of Rights. (Super solid, cool stuff is in there, like not having to testify against yourself, and keeping the cops from snooping around in your house outwith a warrant.) These rights apply to everyone (even “bad guys”), and you should be really pumped about that because if the government can arbitrarily take rights away from someone because they are like 99% sure they did a bad thing, then they can do it to anyone – even you!
So defense lawyers make sure that the government is on its best behavior all the time, so whether they are dealing with a bad guy or not, so everyone’s rights are preserved. This, by the way, is why people get away sometimes because of “technicalities”: the police didn’t follow this rule or that rule, so the evidence is hidden from the jury, and the defendant walks free. Does it stink sometimes? Yup. But, again, in an ideal world, the police would follow all the rules, and then good guys will walk free and bad guys go to jail.
All this may sound totally absurd, but it’s super, majorly important. Someone asked me once if a lawyer who knew their client was guilty could just do a bad job, and make sure the person went to jail. NO! Big time no! Why? One of those important rights we discussed is that everyone has a right to a competent attorney – if you do a bad job, and the bad guy goes to jail, he can appeal by saying he had a bad attorney, and he can end up walking free!
The entire American system is designed so that if everyone does their job perfectly, and everyone follows the rules, justice will be done. Obviously, Making a Murderer fans and Black Lives Matter alike will shake their heads at that theory – but that’s the plan. As lawyers, we have a very important role to play in this system. Even when it fails, I can say that my role in the system – despite its flaws – was honored.
Thanks for joining me for week one of Ask an Attorney! Come back next Monday for the next answer. Do you have a question you always wanted to ask? Here’s your chance!