"I Was Once Your Client"
Every now that then we get solicited to publish a "guest post" by someone. To date, we've always said "thank you, but no thanks." Today we break that rule -- this one was so well written that we couldn't say no. Here it is, unedited.
"I Was Once Your Client"
Amy B. Butler
Once upon a time, I woke up in my car. The keys were still in the ignition and I wondered where I was. My head was pounding and it was way too bright outside. There were all sorts of people, dressed in their Sunday’s best, heading into the church I was parked in front of. It all started coming back to me: the bar, my friends, the song I liked so much I just had to hear the end of it. Only I passed out in my car instead, probably missing the end of the song but also avoiding far worse fates.
Perhaps it was fitting that I ended up parked in front of a church, because the only way I made it home that night was by the grace of something much bigger than myself. I had no recollection of driving home. This wasn’t the first time and I am ashamed to admit it would not be the last.
But before I beat myself up too much for past mistakes, I remember how popular I was, especially back in the heavy drinking days. I know I cannot be the only one, because I was rarely alone at the time. It was downtown Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in the late 1990’s. The bars were packed and this was long before Uber or Lyft, so how did everyone else get home? My best guess is that a lot of them also drove home drunk. Two wrongs do not make a right, but at the same time let’s be real.
Fast forward 20 years and I am pleased to report that I am no longer that drunken mess of a girl. Yet even decades later, I admit to being worried about what people will think of me by telling that story. Imagine how awful I would feel if I had ever been caught and had to fess up to that!
Nope. I was one of the lucky, privileged ones— someone who got away with it for years, until I finally actually woke up. Where would I be if I had been caught? What would a night in the Milwaukee County Jail do to a “nice” girl like me? And what would have become of my future clients whose lives I would like to think were positively influenced by my work?
Because honestly, does my story remind you of anyone? Have you ever read criminal complaints that make you cringe, like my story might have made you cringe? Those repeat drunk driving clients of yours? They are me. They are an earlier version of me, but they are still me. Tell me, are they you, too?
Granted, my escapades may have been somewhat extreme. It was Wisconsin, after all. But even if you have not made your own share of drunken mistakes or done anything quite that stupid, you likely know many people who have if you are reading this blog. Looking back on my life, the car incident was but one of my many greatest hits. Time after time, I kept making the same mistakes. It took awhile to grow up in my case, but thankfully I did and emerged relatively unscathed.
When I read my client’s discovery, there is a part of me that knows it could have been me racking up DWI charges or “accidentally” killing my best friend or a stranger. It could have been me unable to pursue my dreams all because of one night where I learned the hard way that I was not so lucky after all.
As a dispositional advisor and mitigation specialist, my job is to provide the Court with the information necessary to discern who belongs in jail and prison and who does not. I look for progress. I listen for your clients to tell me they want something different for themselves. If they seek assistance locating community resources, I am happy to provide them with whatever information they need. I am optimistic and hopeful, but the client has to do the work. If they do, they tend to progress until they realize all on their own, as I eventually did, that life is better without the [insert drug of choice getting them into trouble].
I do not swap old stories with clients and I do not suggest that you do either. However, I do suggest that you keep those memories of your own past indiscretions nearby. If your clients mess up, give them the same grace you would extend to yourself. And most of all, when your clients begin to recognize the gap between who they want to be and who they actually have been (and pending criminal charges seem to quicken this process) reassure them they can bridge that gap. Acknowledge each step in the right direction and when they succeed and truly start living up to their potential, let the Court know all about it.
Our clients will never be perfect, or they would not be our clients in the first place. While those “not guilty” verdicts must feel amazing, they are only one way to show off your legal prowess. The less glamorous part of your job is to simply remember and convince the judge of your client’s inherent value, despite their mistakes. As defense attorneys, you are the ones to go into court to fight for your clients and their second (oh, who am I kidding— their third or maybe even fourth) chance to become someone they can finally be proud of. And I can tell you from personal experience that when your client gets to that point in their journey, it will feel better than any drink could ever taste or song could ever sound.