On Meeting Mark Bennett of Defending People
by Jamison Koehler on April 12, 2010
In talking with another lawyer during my training in Houston, the other lawyer was surprised that I could know so much about the author of D.A. Confidential without being aware that he speaks with a British accent. That’s the thing about following a blog. You can find out an awful lot about the blog’s author without ever meeting the person face-to-face.
I have met many D.C.-area criminal defense bloggers in person. Matt Kaiser of The Kaiser Blog and Mirriam Seddiq of Not Guilty No Way have both become friends. And I regularly see people like Jon Katz of the Underdog blog in court. But until this weekend I had never met Mark Bennett of Defending People.
To say that Bennett is the grandfather of criminal law blogs suggests that he is a lot older than he is. But no matter what you call him, many bloggers, most notably Scott Greenfield of Simple Justice, credit Bennett with inspiring and encouraging them early on in their blogging careers.
Bennett suggested we get together when he learned I was going to be in Houston, and we meet at his office in the Heights, a comfortable and established residential community just a couple of miles outside of Houston. Bennett meets me at the front gate, and I am surprised when we go inside to find out that the building is also Bennett’s home.
The only things that separate his office from the rest of the house are two sets of French doors. In fact, when a client shows up unexpectedly while I am there, Bennett meets with the client in his office while his daughter sits through the French doors in the living room next door and his law partner and wife Jennifer does yardwork outside. I ask Bennett if he is ever uncomfortable inviting criminal clients into his house, and he thinks about this for a moment as if this has never occurred to him. “I guess I wouldn’t want to represent anyone,” he says, “that I wouldn’t want to have here.”
“Just lawyers helping people” is the Bennett & Bennett law firm motto, and Bennett describes himself on their website as a “small-town, big city” lawyer. Both Bennett and Jennifer are warm and relaxed. There is no sign of the hard edge, the bite, that occasionally pops up on his blog. The firm takes a low-volume, high-quality approach to its caseload, and the firm’s website emphasizes the need to find a good match between attorney and client. Bennett practices law on his own terms, and he clearly enjoys it.
Bennett opened his practice in 1995 directly out of law school, and was joined two years later by Jennifer whom he had met in law school. The firm went on-line in 1999, years ahead of most everyone else. I note that there couldn’t have been too many lawyers going solo out of law school at that time, and ask him if he found it difficult to do. Not for someone willing to ask a lot of questions, he answers. And not with a supportive criminal defense bar such as the one in Houston. Bennett now serves himself as a mentor for new lawyers.
Bennett says on his website video that, while he may not like all his clients, he loves all of them, and it is clear from watching him interact with the client that he both likes AND loves this young man. Bennett is friendly, relaxed, and respectful toward the client, and the affection is obviously mutual. While it is clear Bennett already knows how he will be trying this case, the client has a lot of ideas and Bennett lets him do most of the talking. At one point the client offers a new fact he believes will help. ‘That’s interesting,” Bennett tells the client with genuine enthusiasm , and they both think about that for a moment. “But I’m not sure if it will actually work in our favor,” Bennett adds gently.
Jennifer walks Bennett and me out to the garage as we leave for the airport, and I kid both of them about the three cars in their garage when there are only two licensed drivers in the family. Jennifer laughs and points to the Porsche toward the back of the garage. That’s just one of Mark’s projects, she says. Yes, Bennett admits. I do like to tinker.
We talk about other things on the short ride to the airport (Scott Greenfield, other bloggers, Bennett’s cyberstalker, and so on), but it’s clear that his mind is still on the client. I had warned him earlier that the visit would be sure to inspire a blog entry. The last thing he says to me, after I thank him and we say goodbye, is to ask me not to put anything in the entry that could possibly jeopardize his client’s case. I assure him that I won’t. And, as the Mercedes with the personalized license plates “We Defend” pulls away from the curb, I think of the same thing I told his client earlier in the day: The client can rest assured. He is obviously in very good hands.