Dealing with Stuart Schuman of the Defender Association
by Jamison Koehler on November 4, 2019
The yellow file has been returned to me with a note on it from Stuart Schuman, the misdemeanor supervisor at the Defender Association of Philadelphia. The note is waiting for me on my chair when I return to the office: “Please see me.”
Uh oh, I think. This can’t be good.
I grab the file and head down immediately to Schuman’s cramped office on the 8th floor.
This was a big mistake: I should have prepared the file first. He grills me relentlessly about every decision I made, every aspect of the case. I do not have a good answer for many of his questions.
I only make this mistake once. The next time I get a call to see him I review the file carefully first. This time I have an answer for every question he puts to me. We go back and forth like a ping pong ball. He narrows his focus until finally he is challenging me on a very inconsequential issue for which, it turns out, I do not have a good answer. He seems relieved. Thus ends our meeting.
The fact is, I did make mistakes when doing misdemeanor work under his supervision. Lots of them. But there never seemed to be any correlation between the mistakes I made and the files Schuman wanted to see me about. After a while I realized that Schuman’s interest in seeing one of us had little to do with a particular file. Instead, every time Schuman saw a file that enabled him to deliver a certain speech, a certain lesson he wanted to impart, that is when he would call one of us to his office. He would deliver the lesson. Then he would seem to feel better about things: It was as if he had just scratched an itch.
One time I decided to use some reverse psychology.
This time I initiated the meeting. It took me a while to see him. He was busy. I had to pester one of the misdemeanor assistants. I had to camp outside his office.
I made a horrible mistake, I told him when I finally got in to see him. Then I launched into a description of all the ways I had messed up a case. A natural contrarian, Schuman found a way to disagree with me, to justify every decision I made. Once again we went back and forth, arguing. Once again, our conversation did not end until I had acquiesced to his point of view: I was not, in fact, a miserable lawyer.
That was the last time he called me down to his office.
We deal with people, not files.
Schuman repeated this all the time, and it really got on the nerves of some of us. Schuman sat in an office reviewing stacks upon stacks of the files we had marked up and returned after court. Maybe he needed to occasionally remind himself that there was an actual person attached to each file. But those of us working in the trenches of a misdemeanor room were dealing every day with living and breathing human beings. We were immersed in their fear, anger and confusion, their addiction and mental health issues. We needed no such reminder. We knew all too well that we were dealing with actual people.
Different people require different motivations. Schuman’s approach may have worked with some people. But it didn’t work with me: I was already trying as hard as I could. I didn’t need to be shamed into working harder.
At one point when my wife was out of town, I asked my son to drive me over to the emergency room in Chestnut Hill so that I could check myself in for exhaustion. But I left the hospital early the next morning, went back to the house to shower and change, and still made it back to court for that morning’s docket.
“How can I help?”
This is what Schuman asks me when he comes into one of the misdemeanor courtrooms where I am handling the docket. He or his deputy do this periodically to monitor our performance.
“Great,” I say to Schuman. “Maybe you could convey a couple of the offers?” I try to hand him a couple of the files.
This would be a tremendous help. Working the room solo on this particular day, I am struggling with a long docket, and I still have 5 or 6 plea offers to convey before the judge takes the bench. But rolling up his sleeves and actually interacting with a human being – one of the human beings who is not just a file — is not what Schuman has in mind. He sits down in the front row instead. I now have two duties. I handle the docket. I answer his questions.
Another time Schuman comes into the courtroom to find me sitting off to the side reading a police report that the government has just turned over. The court is forcing me to trial – “must be tried” — even though I am seeing the report for the first time.
What are you doing, Schuman asks me as the room buzzes around us. Catching up on your reading?
There can be a certain accusatory, holier-than-thou approach at some of the public interest organizations I have worked at: It is a contest to see who is more committed. I found that in Philadelphia. If I recall correctly, there was a woman named Laura who did immigration work and someone named Kate who handled arraignments for felony cases. Both of them were insufferable.
At the same time, there were people like Karl Baker, who I see from the organization chart still heads the appeals branch. I remember going to see Baker when I was convinced I had completely blown something.
I was right: I had made a serious mistake. But I didn’t need for him to tell me that. Instead he got up from his desk and came around to sit down next to me. He went immediately into problem-solving mode. And we figured out a way together to fix things.
Don’t get me wrong: I am sure that, at one time, Schuman was a first rate trial attorney. We saw glimpses of this during some of the training sessions he led.
I am sure that he also inspired many other lawyers who, like me, passed through the Association before moving on to bigger and better things. Writes former defender Marc Bookman: “If you somehow managed to spend time under Stu’s tutelage and you didn’t rethink your entire approach to being a public defender, it was likely that you had chosen the wrong career path. He was that kind of a mentor.”
Schuman could be a sweet man. I remember running into him at the train station in Philly and seeing him in an unguarded moment greeting one of his children arriving home on the train. I am sure he was a wonderful husband and father. And he showed remarkable compassion toward the plight of some of our most vulnerable clients. I remember him being particularly concerned about a client of mine who slashed police tires. She wanted to return to jail where she would be fed and have a roof over her head.
Finally, Schuman had a dry sense of humor. He called me down to his office one time to inform me of a phone call from a police officer I had just cross-examined at trial. The officer wanted to inform my supervisor how offended he was that I had called him a liar.
Schuman regarded me over the yellow files piled high on his desk. Had I in fact called the officer a liar? I am sure I didn’t use that word, I replied, although I guess it was implied. Schuman smiled. Very well then, he said. I have done my job. Consider yourself chastised.