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No Meetings for Criminal Defense Lawyers

Jamison KoehlerLaw Practice


I went to my first meeting yesterday in over 10 years.

Believe me, I know my way around a meeting.  During my first career in the government, I did nothing but meetings:  budget meetings, planning meetings, team meetings, agency meetings, inter-agency meetings. Half of my day was spent planning for meetings. The other half was spent sitting in them.

Before being promoted into management, I had to be trained on chairing a meeting. It’s very straight-forward: you send out an agenda in advance, you start the meeting on time, you go through the agenda, and then you end the meeting at the time you said you would.  No around the table, what’s on your mind thing for me.

My favorite meetings were the inter-agency meetings chaired by the Department of State. I’m not quite sure why they called them inter-agency meetings because for the most part you felt as if you were eavesdropping on an internal State Department meeting. A representative from one of the offices at State would begin the meeting.  The chair would then turn it over to representatives from each of the other State Department offices to say their piece.  There would be some bickering between the offices because those guys could never agree on anything.  With ten minutes left to go, the chair would then say, I’m sorry, would someone else like to say something?  Treasury?  EPA?  Department of Energy?  Commerce?

Of course, before I ever went to one of these State Department meetings, I had to call a meeting within my own agency to help decide what our position would be at the inter-agency meeting.

Needless to say, when I resigned from the government in 2002, walking out of the Ronald Reagan building with my personal belongings in a cardboard box, I knew I was not going to miss the meetings.

I stayed at home with the kids for a year and a half.  Every day for the first six-months was like a snow day.  And the best part about it was that there were no meetings.

After the whole stay-at-home thing got old, I went to law school, taking classes during the day so that I could be there when the kids got home from school.  And, again, there were no meetings.

Thankfully, in deciding to become a criminal defense lawyer, I picked a legal career in which you rarely – if ever – have to go to a meeting. Yes, you may occasionally attend a conference or training session that involves sitting down and listening to someone else talk. And you meet with clients. But there are no occasions in which you sit down around a table with a group of other people (the bigger the committee, the less important its mandate), introduce yourselves, talk about things, and then spend the last half of the meeting planning the next get-together.

My ten-year streak of no-meetings was snapped yesterday.

A couple of weeks ago I was asked to serve on a D.C. Superior Court committee.  A judge asked me, and there are two other judges on the committee, one of whom I appear before regularly.   The committee is also focused on an issue that is near and dear to me:  the treatment of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender youth within the D.C. family court system.

But even then I struggled with the decision.  One of the benefits to being a solo practitioner is that you live life on your own terms.  You are accountable only to the courts and to clients.  Unlike the millions of “stakeholders” I had as a government servant, a criminal defense lawyer has a constituency of only one:  the client.  As a result, you rarely have to do anything you don’t want to do.

My wife encouraged me to accept the invitation.  It will be good for you, she said. You should do it.

So I went to the committee’s first meeting yesterday, heading back into the city during rush-hour at a time I am normally sitting down for dinner. I arrived early only to have the start of the meeting delayed for 15 minutes so that the last invitee could straggle in.  It reminded me of waiting for the door on an airplane to close.  Find your seat, the flight attendant says over the intercom, so that we can pull away from the gate.

If I didn’t immediately regret my decision to participate on the committee, two things did occur to me as we went around the room to introduce ourselves.  The first was that, despite all my wife’s encouragement, I rarely see her going to any meetings herself.  She is probably the most time-efficient person you have ever seen, a person used to juggling family with a career.

The other conclusion – and the moral of this story – is that you should only go to meetings that you have called yourself.  Otherwise, you are nothing more than a hostage to other people.