Jefferson Memorial

Pet Peeves: On Prosecutors and Professionalism

Jamison KoehlerLaw Practice, Professional Responsibility/Ethics

Whenever you walk into a store, it doesn’t matter how busy the staff may be, the clerk should immediately acknowledge your presence.  Good afternoon, sir, the clerk should say.  I will be right with you.

You forgive a lot once these words have been spoken. Please, you respond graciously.  Take your time.  And you mean it.

The same principle should apply to prosecutors in their dealings with defense attorneys.

Most prosecutors in D.C. are pleasant and professional. But there are exceptions.

I am always annoyed by prosecutors who stroll into the courtroom moments before the judge takes the bench.  This results in a rush of defense attorneys toward counsel table seeking to speak with the prosecutors before our cases are called.  It makes our job that much more difficult.  And then the judge chastises us for not having worked out more of these issues in advance.

But that is not what this blog entry is about.  The prosecutors in the instance that prompted this post – two assistant U.S. attorneys – arrived in plenty of time.  And the docket was light that day so there were few people in the room.

So I sat in the front row as the prosecutors took out their files and arranged them on the table.  I know that prosecutors hate it when you approach them before they are ready.  I also allowed plenty of time for police officers and other witnesses to check in.  It was only after I saw the prosecutors start to re-arrange their files that I approached.

And here’s my beef:  It doesn’t matter how new you are.  Or how many trials you have scheduled for the day.  You need to acknowledge a person’s presence.  Even a simple nod will do.

Someone from my first career with the federal government told me upon her retirement that I never once failed to stand up to greet her whenever she came into my office.  She was older, she said.  She was a woman.  She was a clerical worker.  And she was African-American.  That’s why, she said, she particularly appreciated this.  She said she wanted to write a thank you letter to my mother.

This is one of the nicest things anyone has ever said about me.  It is also what I expect in return in the way store clerks deal with me.  It is what I expect from prosecutors.  Nobody wants to be invisible.  Nobody wants to be marginalized.

This is not about ego.  Or at least it is not just about ego.  You do this not because you are worried about your reputation or because you might encounter defense counsel later in court or in life.  You do this because it is the right thing, the basic thing, to do. This is Human Relations 101.  You treat everyone with courtesy no matter who they are.  You treat everyone with respect no matter who you are.

Postscript:  I ran into one of the prosecutors this morning who inspired this post.  Grateful to her for having giving me material to write about, I smiled at her.  She stared straight ahead. Apparently, she is having another bad day.