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Civilian Defense Counsel: Fueled by Honor or Greed?

The Internet age and its attendant anonymity contribute significantly to people’s belief that harsh and even baseless criticism is perfectly acceptable. Or at least, that’s what I tell myself. My motives and my honor recently came under attack in a public forum. Not jumping on the comments was one of the most difficult choices I’ve made since beginning this journey where I have chosen to share who I am and what are my closest beliefs about the military justice system.

Public scrutiny can be instrumental in ensuring fundamental fairness for servicemembers and plays a vital role in transparency. I often trumpet such causes. In this case, however, the public scrutiny over my motivation had very little to do with who I am; it was based on the brand video that I contracted to produce. The project for the video’s inception is something as close to me as any I’ve ever participated in and airing it for the world was a breathless venture, vulnerable and full of hope in the same moment. I had hoped to convey that what I do to make my living is not the means to an end, but is a source of personal passion and the culmination of years of hard work and determination. Based on the responses of many, family, friends, and many strangers, I achieved my goal and I remain proud of its end state.

Those who do not know me opted to attack it as an advertisement. Is it an advertisement? You bet your a$$ it is. And I won’t make apology for it. When I began this venture into private practice nearly four years ago, I naively believed that if I adhered to the absolute highest standards and was excellent in my craft, clients would find me. I mostly was wrong. Do I receive referrals from military members who have seen me in court and know of my achievements? Absolutely. But for the vast majority of individuals seeking legal representation in this small subspecialty of criminal defense, Google remains king. So I advertise. I seek clients for whom I can do the most good.

I also apply the same standards of the highest ethical conduct to my advertising as I do to those who find me. I consult with hundreds of members, parents, significant others to provide comfort and answers to the unknown where possible.

Only a short number of those who find me should hire me. And I tell them so.

For anyone in need of a good plea agreement from the government, I tell him their free military counsel can and will do a zealous job for them. For those callers facing nonjudicial punishment that are contemplating demanding a trial by court-martial, I explain the litany of risks and reasons in their individual circumstance doing so it is not in their best interest. And I never collect a penny for those calls.

Hiring me is not in the best interest of every person who seeks my counsel.  Not for lack of effort or virtuous motivation.

I receive a fair number of calls from people who have already hired civilian counsel who question if that counsel’s “sit back and wait” approach is in their best interest. Do I pitch to them that they should fire that counsel and hire me? Nope. Do I poach other counsels’ clients? No, I do not. In a small community where some of my colleagues do not apply the same standards, I choose to adhere to the principles that achieved the reputation I have intact. I tell such callers that they need to have a frank discussion with their counsel. I remind them that I am not privy to the same information their counsel may be, that I will not tell them their counsel is making the wrong tactical decisions on their behalf. I am not a used car salesman. And I don’t need to poach other people’s clients to achieve the goals I have. I am also not suffering from any conceptions that callers tell me everything they have told their hired counsel. People in desperate circumstances want to be comforted, they want another opinion, and certainly there is nothing wrong with seeking it out. But I choose not to be a pawn in that process if the caller is picking and choosing what to share with me in the hope of receiving an opinion that says “I can get you out of this mess.”

For those who call that are pending investigation by local law enforcement, unsure if their case will be prosecuted by the civilians or by the military, I make some calls to see if that decision has been made. I explain to the military prosecutors that I don’t want to take someone’s retainer if there is no need because I do not take civilian cases. In addition to choosing a focused practice, I am not in the business of taking people’s money when my efforts on their behalf would prove fruitless. Military prosecutors (yes, even them) appreciate these calls and gladly provide information they have because no one in uniform wants to see a fellow member financially exploited. Part and parcel of this flow of information is the reputation that such behavior fosters, never deviating from the highest standards.

Finally, there are those for whom I can likely do very little. This assessment extends beyond a detached appraisal of the evidence against him. No matter how hard I work, how knowledgeable I am, some callers are not emotionally prepared to be part of a team in being an asset to the defense. Anger and denial are contrary to productive and respectful collaborative efforts. Does this mean I never take clients who are on the emotional rollercoaster dealing with the possibility of losing everything for which they have worked? Of course not. There is a reason attorneys are also known as “counselor.” But there is a grave distinction between those whose anger is useful and constructive and those whose anger is debilitating and draining.

Of the most harsh accusations made against me was that I do not want to improve the system or want to stop the allegations from proceeding all the way to trial because of greed, that I have a vested financial interest in ensuring that the system stays unfair and bent on prosecution. Though baseless for me personally, I believe this condemnation is born of disgust that our military members would need to pay for legal services to rid them of baseless allegations. I could not agree more. But I am one person in a greater system, doing the best that I can for those who have a need. Refusing to provide them with quality representation does not make the system any better. In addition to lodging the efforts I do in any given client’s cause, I am drafting proposed legislation to lobby those with the power to change a broken system. And I am not receiving a penny for it.

Do I make a living by using my skills to help others? Yes, I do. I won’t be made to feel guilty for being compensated for my knowledge, training, and experience. But that also doesn’t make me any less “honorable” as some critics contend. I also won’t apologize that the system, at least for now (we’ll see what amendments Congress musters next) grants members the freedom to hire independent counsel. Training and experience deficits aside, civilian counsel provide a check on the military’s justice system to ensure that those of us free to make decisions based exclusively on the best interest of the client, instead of either a real or perceived fear of impact on one’s own career. In that role and in this contemporary era of the military witch hunt, there is much honor.