Attorney and Client, Passing In The Night

by Jamison Koehler on May 28, 2010

One of the major complaints clients had when I worked as a public defender was that, because the lawyers were shuffled around so much, the lawyer who ended up representing them at trial probably couldn’t have picked them out in a line-up the day after.

It was a valid complaint.

We may well have known every single thing about their case – the allegations, their legal posture, their criminal history, etc. – but with that many clients, it was sometimes hard to distinguish one client’s face from another.  That’s just not what you had to focus on.

Knowing this, I always made a point of trying to connect the client’s file with the client’s face.  Because we used the horizontal system of representation (one lawyer would represent them at preliminary arraignment, another at preliminary hearing, and still another at trial), it was rare that you would encounter the same client twice.

But it did occasionally happen (the record for me was representing the same guy at three different listings).  And when it did happen, the advantage with respect to the recognition game was all ours. With the exception of felony cases, the client wouldn’t know who he should expect to see upon showing up at the courthouse.  We, on the other hand, had the file.  If we had represented the client before, we could see our previous notations on the file.

Mr. Smith!  So good to see you again!

I was often surprised – and also a little bit dismayed – when the client had no recollection of who I was.  You mean you don’t remember what a fine job I did of representing you at the last listing?

My mistake was doing this with a client who turned out to be suffering from paranoid schizophrenia.

“Mr. Williams” was charged with committing a series of car break-ins in my neighborhood, and I was working the intake room doing preliminary interviews when he came in.  Though homeless, he had taken three different buses to come to our office in Center City for the interview.  He wanted to tell us that he would not be needing a lawyer.  He would represent himself.

I thanked him for coming in, and, as I had been instructed to do in this type of situation, managed to talk him into providing us with an interview anyway. He had gone to so much trouble to come in. He might change his mind later.

A week or so later, I ran into him back at the A-Plus in our old neighborhood.  Mr. Williams, I said. Good to see you again!  I was proud of myself for being able to remember his name.  He looked stricken.

I never found out what happened with Mr. Williams’ case, so I don’t know whether he was finally able to represent himself and, if so, with what outcome.  But a couple of months ago, years after my encounter with him at the PD’s office, I was back in our old neighborhood in Philadelphia when I saw Mr. Williams coming towards me on the sidewalk. He was wearing sun glasses so I couldn’t tell if there was a flicker of recognition as we passed each other.  He continued on his way.  I continued on mine.

4 Comments on “Attorney and Client, Passing In The Night

  1. A psychologist once told me that she warns her patients that if she encounters them outside of therapy — at a party or at the mall — she won’t acknowledge them in any way in order to protect their confidentiality. I don’t know if that applies to lawyers, where representation is a matter of public record, but it might make a good excuse.

  2. I guess that would make a lot of sense. You wouldn’t want your lawyer spotting you downtown and calling out across the street: “Hey, Joe! I’m sure we can beat that trumped up case!”

  3. I was at a Wendy’s with my wife and kids a couple of months ago. The kids were having a grand time on the playscape, I was chatting with my wife. The chap at the next table turned to me and said, “Do you recognize me?” I swallowed my tongue. My first thought was, Please tell me I gave you probation.
    Turned out he was a juror on an arson case I’d tried and had grown a beard, which we both laughed about.
    I often wonder what would happen, what WILL happen, when I run into a defendant. All I can hope is that they recognize me as the ADA that treated them as a person, not a criminal. Either that, or not recognize me at all. 🙂

  4. D.A.: I think I may already have told this story on this site but, as my kids will confirm for you, I like to tell the same stories over and over. A good friend of mine — the guy who sometimes posts on this site as “Hamilton Burger” — is a former prosecutor. One time he was standing alone late at night at a bus stop when he was approached by someone he had sent away to prison. Mr. Burger remembered the guy because the guy’s attorney had told Burger that the guy had taken it all pretty personally. The guy came up to Mr. Burger and asked him in a menacing manner if Mr. Burger remembered him. Mr. Burger was pretty quick-witted. Yes, he said with as much authority as he could muster. I remember you very well. And I sure hope you are staying out of trouble! Yes, yes, the guy replied. I’ve been clean, I’ve been clean. And with that he took off.

    Thanks for the comment.

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