Thursday, October 20, 2005

Don't Gimme No Government Cheese

This little note raises a couple of questions:
1. Why do many people view indigent defenders as not real lawyers?
2. Why do I find this gentle contempt humorous?

The root of the reason why we're not 'real' attorneys is money. Money is the defining and driving force of our society. If something costs less, its not as good. If its free, it must be crap. Now add to the mix the fact that we're from the government and we're here to help you. Result: If its free and from the government, you're screwed.
We are suspect if we are not out in private practice making money. There are only two possible reasons why we aren't already in private practice: a. We are so incompetent we can't even make it as the courthouse bottomfeeder. (but you have to pay money to the bottomfeeder - so he's obviously better than any free attorney) b. We are new and inexperienced and need to hone our skills on some poor folks first. (hmm. two years should just about do it...)
Now, what happens if you do well for your client - really well? Usually its something related to (b) above. "Man, I want your card, 'cause when you get out into private practice; I'm gonna look you up" or "Why haven't you hung out your own shingle out yet?"
The folks who buy into the philosophy that we're not really lawyers cannot conceive that we might be here for something other than money. If you tell somebody you're a PD because you're called to it, or because you believe in what America ought to be, they look at you in the same way we might look at someone who told us about how they live off the grid and weave their own clothes from their own sheep's wool. "Yes, these people exist, but not in my world."
Indigent Defenders engender a great deal of cognitive dissonance in people because of what we do, and why we do it. For most people its easier to invent an (incorrect) explanation that fits their worldview than to accept that there might be other reasons besides money for doing something.

So why is it funny?
Laughter is another way to deal with cognitive dissonance. Or absurdity or cruelty or injustice. Abraham Lincoln, in discussing the Union's difficulties in the Civil War, said that "I laugh because I must not cry."
I like Robert Heinlein's explanation better, though. Laughter is a necessary survival mechanism that keeps us from going crazy or committing suicide. "In Stranger in a Strange Land" a human, Michael Valentine Smith, is raised from birth by Martians and is returned to Earth as a young adult. He tries to understand laughter, but can't until he sees the monkey house at a zoo. Big monkey picks on little monkey. Little monkey picks on smaller monkey. Smaller monkey picks on yet smaller monkey. Mike understands and bursts out laughing.
Mike laughed at the monkeys becasue he saw, he understood, the unfairness, the dissonance in the behavior of the monkeys, and also saw human behavior mirrored by the monkeys. His response was the same a Lincoln's: cry or laugh. Mike's rebuttal to the 'that can't be it' argument was something along the lines of "OK, tell me a laugh out loud joke that does not involve somebody getting hurt, or embarrassed or put down." Try it.
Humans are aware of their situation. We can see the way things ought to be. We can imagine changing our situation. We can see the difference between the is and the ought. Laughter is the salve that soothes the emotional pain of that dissonance. Laughter is a defense against the despair that humans, being self-aware, are prone to. (Especially ones that read too much Sartre)
Ugh. too heavy. How about laughter is a defense against absurdity. Existentially equivalent, but with better connotations.
With regard to our clients who know that we aren't real lawyers, the joke (for us) is that we're actually among the best around. That (for example) in this area, there are no private attorneys that can try a death case better; that there are only 1, maybe 2 private attorneys who can try a case better than the best in our office; that there are only a dozen or so private attorneys who are better than the average public defender. The humor is in the cognitive dissonance/absurdity between the client's view of us and the reality.
The humor gets a little darker when you think that even though your client knows their life is in your hands, and they know that you're not a real attorney, the system has them so beaten down that their whining that you're not a real attorney is the most resistance they can muster against the system that (in their eyes) you are still a part of. (more cognitive dissonance)
I promise I'll post something more upbeat tomorrow.


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