Select Student Vignettes--Summer 2015

The Clinic Experience: Three Short, Fast Months

                        “Family.” “Kid.” “Conspiracy.” “I didn’t do it.” “One time.” “Kill myself.”

                                   Phrases I hear from clients while they discuss their case.

                                               “Happy.” “Thank you.” “Appreciate.”

                  A few phrases clients tell me when they find out LAIP has accepted their application.

                                                     “Hope.” “Listen.” “Help.”

                               A few words I’ve learned to use to describe my work with LAIP.

                             “Detainers.” “Sentence Credit.” “Ineffective Assistance of Counsel.”

                                A few of the words that terrified me the first week of the clinic.

I would sit at my desk, wondering where I should even begin with these words. I received nine clients this summer. I was unsure what I could do for my clients, if I could even call them my clients. Now, after three short, fast months, I find it difficult to take a two-week break from those I consider my clients. I have so much to do. However, I look forward to my next nine months with LAIP. I am feeling more confident than I ever thought I would be that first day of summer.

Obligation to Serve Society

We often feel little responsibility for social problems that we do not confront on a regular basis. However, when we step outside our comfort zones to see and learn about these problems, we can learn to identify and empathize with the people involved, and they become a part of our responsibilities as future lawyers. After working with the Restorative Justice Project during the summer program, I now feel a very strong responsibility as a law student to serve society.

My summer project started with a “starfish story” that taught us that small but persistent changes can eventually make a big difference. To me, the other meaning behind this story is that no matter how unsatisfied we are with the various social problems, and no matter how “paralyzed” we consider our society or justice system to be, we, as legal professionals, should never feel hopeless. Through meeting with clients and receiving letters from them, I realized that in addition to the role of advocate for our clients, we also play the role of “bringer of hope” in their lives. When they called me a “life guard” and “the one with the opportunity to change the system,” I feel more affirmed in my obligation to serve society.

"No problem or person has one face"

The inmate I was meeting with was funny, well kept, and looked like someone I might see walking down the street. The thing was, this person was an admitted child molester. He had an unusual claim to innocence. He admitted that he had systematically abused and molested his older daughter. He denied doing the same to his younger daughter. For each offense he had been convicted separately. This inmate was frank about what he had done, and was eager to tell us of his success in sex offender treatment. My brain had trouble connecting the man I was speaking with to the man who had committed these crimes. It’s hard to confront that someone who was so nice and easy to get along with was also capable of such a terrible and sickening crime. This interview was a stark reminder that I have embarked on a career in a human system. No problem or person has one face. Engaging the criminal justice system is unavoidably surreal.

"A man and his story"

The building we entered was segregation. This was a screener case. No one had ever spoken to this client before. We were not told why the client had been removed from the general population.
As we approached the door to the interview room, the guard told us: “Okay, I don’t know if he’s going to do anything, but if he does, I’ll leave the door open a crack. If he makes a move, just get out of there.” Super. Thanks, pal.

Now fully unnerved by this ominous warning, we walked into the small, almost entirely concrete room. The walls were concrete, but so was the table, and the chairs were concrete cylinders so that nothing in this room was going to be moved, or used as a weapon, presumably. Our client was there, chained to the table.
We came in, introduced ourselves. More specifically, I introduced myself, my SA, another student, and then in my nervousness, forgot my other classmate’s name. I was mortified, but our client didn’t seem to mind or care. In fact, he seemed about as nervous as I was.

The rest of the meeting went without incident. He was a fairly quiet man, but he told us his story, and for much of the meeting, I forgot that I was in a room entirely made of concrete. The setting melted away. It was just us there. A man and his story, and three people listening, hoping they could help.

"Are you scared coming in here man?"

“Are you scared coming in here man?” an inmate asked. “If I was in a little room with a convicted felon I’d be scared as [explicative deleted]!”

I thought about the question for a second, and simply answered, “No. I wouldn’t want to be the district attorney or the judge right now, but with LAIP I am here to help you, and inmates have always been very respectful and appreciative of the work we do.” Mr. K. was amused by my answer; we went on to have a long thoughtful discussion about his case, his past, and his hopes for when he gets out of prison.

This simple exchange was a highlight of the summer and shows the transition in thought that I had coming into the program. Initially, I was concerned about going to prisons and meeting my clients. I was afraid that I would not be able to relate to them and advocate effectively because they were in for such serious crimes. Then I met my first client. I became comfortable working with my clients and learned that LAIP did represent my value system of fighting for individual liberty. LAIP broke my dark worldview of the criminal justice system and humanized the inmates that are portrayed so negatively on TV and in movies. It was an imperative step for my legal career, being able to work with and understand my client’s issues and story. Seeing the world from such a different perspective was a fantastic opportunity and it will be interesting how Mr. K. and my other inmate clients will have helped to shape my legal career.

A Lot of Work When a Call Would Have Solved the Problem

I was reviewing one of my clients’ case histories on CCAP and noticed that a creditor had filed a small claims action against my client. After speaking with my client I spoke with an attorney from the Consumer Law Clinic. After this consultation and doing a little additional research, I filed a motion to dismiss the claim based on the fact that my client had never been served with the Complaint. It took me almost an entire day of work, but I successfully submitted the motion. I felt very accomplished. The next day however, the creditor’s attorney called. He told us that since my client was incarcerated, the creditor would dismiss the claim voluntarily.
In the end, I got the right result for my client, but put in way more work than I needed. It was, however, a good lesson on the effectiveness of just calling up the opposing party, rather than assuming that legal action is the only option for solving a problem.

The Client No One Helped

A life sentence that started at twenty years old. I stared at the booking photo of the man I had only seen in his prison uniform sitting across from me, his thick glasses slipping off his wrinkled and worn face. The booking photo showed a frightened boy staring into the camera--I was seeing the same face the trial lawyer must have seen when the verdict came back that Tony was guilty of murder. I started to see the young man in the booking photo instead of the struggling old man across the shabby interview table. His story of being the only Latino in the court room suddenly seemed heartbreaking. He had looked into the eyes of the all-white jury and saw they would never believe him. A small town murder and the primary suspect was an “outsider” who had no family in the area.
     
Tony has served over 40 years in prison, in and out of segregation and suicide watches. He has been tortured by lifelong trauma from an abusive childhood and he has grown up inside Wisconsin’s prisons. He never had an appeal. At no point in the process of his criminal conviction and incarceration has the system been fair to him. He says that before he was incarcerated at Waupun he had never really fought, but he had to learn to defend himself. He doesn’t complain. He just looks down at his hands.

I came to law school intending to work as a criminal defense attorney. But while working on this case I learned something I will take with me for the rest of my career—all defense attorneys will have a Tony. Someone who places their family, their life, their home, or their children’s welfare in our hands. I do feel angry and frustrated with what happened to Tony--how badly his attorney failed to defend him, and how his appellate attorney filed a no merit report without speaking to the trial attorney. But I also realized I might be that attorney someday. I will look into the eyes of one of my clients, like Tony, staring at me, looking for help. I hope I can give it to him.

Situational Intimidation?

Having been through several successful (at least in my mind) initial client interviews, I was confident that this day would be no different. After all, the particular client I was meeting had an issue that I felt I had a solid understanding of.

The correctional officer escorted me to a small room, divided in half by glass and concrete. I sat down on the chair, set my legal pad on the small ledge connected to the divider, noted the phone for communicating with the inmate, and waited for my client to arrive.

When he did arrive, I realized I had a problem. The phone cord was too short. As my client began talking I was half listening to him and half debating how to handle this situation. The client stood right up against the glass, with his 6’4” frame making me feel small. This was obviously not his first time in one of the booths, and he knew exactly how he wanted to present himself.

I considered my options. I could stand along with him but, because the phone cord was so short, that meant standing inches from him. Even with glass separating us, this did not seem like it would be conducive to effective communication. I didn’t want to spend my first meeting with the client in the same position as two drunken bar goers just before the first punch is thrown. It also would have meant bending over every time I wanted to take notes. The other option, which I went with, involved me sitting down for easier note-taking and less face-to-face contact.

The result was an hour of feeling that the client was dictating to me what I was going to do for him. The physical structure of the meeting had a profound effect on the relationship. I don’t think the client was standing so close to the glass to try to intimidate me. But I did get the impression that he understood that he is imposing, both in his appearance and through verbal force, and used it to his advantage to control conversations.
In a letter to him after the meeting, I explained that we could not help him with his innocence claim. A couple weeks later, he sent me a letter asking me to contact his victim. But it wasn’t that he asked it that struck me, but how he asked it. He phrased his request as a demand, questioning my worth as a future attorney if I did not do so.

The lesson I learned is that appearing weak and defenseless through physical posture may make the client think that’s what you are. I don’t think that this client would have sent me a letter questioning my advocacy for him and trying to coerce me into harassing a victim had he not towered over me while I scribbled notes at that first meeting.

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