Representing People, Not Files

Jamison KoehlerLaw Practice


A supervisor at the Philadelphia public defender’s office used to tell us all the time that we were representing people, not files.  This really got on our nerves.  As one colleague put it:  Maybe he needs to be reminded of that fact.  After all, he sits in his office all day doing nothing more than reviewing the files we turn in.  But no one needed to tell us that we were dealing with living and breathing people.  If anything, sometimes handling matters for up to 30 clients a day, we were all too familiar with the humanity of our sometimes angry, frustrated, and scared clients.

A client does in fact start out as a disembodied voice on the telephone, a name in a police report, a stranger standing outside your office in the lobby. Over the course of the representation, however, you visit the client in jail, you meet with family and friends, and you sit together through the heat of battle at trial. It is fair to say that, when all is said and done, you come to know the client pretty damn well.

And then suddenly the verdict is delivered and the case is over.

Clients often promise to stay in touch, and some do. If the client was in custody pre-trial, it is strange to talk with the client on the phone unconcerned about having the conversation monitored. It is even stranger to see the client in person, unshackled and in street clothes.

At the same time, most clients want to move on with their lives. They want to put the whole unfortunate experience behind them.  And you are a part of that experience. So you write out the disposition of the case on the file and scrawl “closed” in black ink across the front of it. You put the file into a locked cabinet. And then you move on to other cases — other people — by closing the drawer.