Since 2008 when I was a part of the busiest Army Trial Defense Counsel offices in the world at Fort Hood, Texas, I began to understand the problems of the military justice system. The system’s goal was not to prevent people from coming into the pipeline. At best, it was and remains a legal triage. Under investigation? Great, they’ll give you about 20 minutes of time. The message? Keep your mouth shut, don’t speak to law enforcement, don’t share information with your friends, abide by military protective orders, and come back WHEN something happens. That bears repeating. Come back WHEN something happens.
I listened to Soldiers’ stories, how they knew there were witnesses who could back them up, that they had text messages that could help to show their innocence. Sorry, pal – if you’re knocking at the door of the military defense counsel, they’ll tell you to hold tight, maybe make a list, but that they can’t help you. Not yet.
It sickens me to relive the number of Soldiers who rotated through our doors with investigations I knew I could help. But the regulations told me I couldn’t. Legal triage.
Of the many reasons I was inspired to start my firm has been the mantra that we want to be where we can do the most good. What does that mean? That means getting involved early, when there is still at least some hope that we can stop a case from becoming one.
Beyond early intervention, we don’t take hopeless causes. If you want a used car salesman to give you hope or worse promises when there really is no chance for a successful outcome, go elsewhere. If there is no hope or your chance for any possible relief is virtually non-existent, we will tell you to keep your money and use it to have a nest egg for your future.
Given the nature of the conveyer belt approach to defense work among the demands of uniformed defense counsel caseloads and even among some civilians in this field, that mantra also means we won’t take more cases than we can handle. Because each case is a person. And each person is a father, a mother, a husband, a wife, a brother, a sister, or a loved one of people who matter. About a week ago one of the firm’s of counsel asked me how he would know when he had too many cases. I replied that if he was asking me the question, he was already there. I will never demand that anyone in my firm takes a certain number of cases. Not ever. I know the stress of feeling that the weight of a human being’s future rests resoundingly on my shoulders. I would never ask that anyone take on more than they know they can at the highest level of advocacy and at when doing so it isn’t straining them to anything close to a breaking point. Being where we can do the most good means also means choosing quality over quantity, every day.
And lastly, that mantra means a pledge that we work for those people who have a grateful and gracious heart about the tireless efforts we make on the cases that we do take. Since 2012 in private practice, I have all but perfected the art and science of detecting a client that won’t fit the firm’s mentality. On those rare instances I have chosen poorly, I have fired clients.
This is not to say that we are incapable of the deepest empathy and understanding for those for whom we are honored to stand fight. But there is a deep chasm between compassion for stress and being an emotional punching bag. The hallmark of a bad fit occurs when the client believes there is an entitlement to take out their stress on the attorney. Nope, no way, no how. What that signals to me, is that the client has lost, if ever had, the trust in that civilian defense attorney required for a mutually healthy relationship. Because it very much is a relationship that should be built on trust. And we cannot do our best for our clients when that trust is not there. Vicarious trauma is real, and vicarious trauma is a reality of the work that we do. Trying to work under circumstances when you do not feel the gratitude and trust from those for whom you’re working taxes the spirit to a point when the work is not fulfilling or fruitful.
We do not take every case. We do not work with every client. We want to be where we can do the most good, and that means turning away work. So we can be the very best for the cases where we can be the difference between jail and freedom and the difference between retirement and decades of service without pension.
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