Brief Notes on Three Letters

Tonight I received three letters from a colleague of mine, one incredibly versed in the practice of law and with a dearth of experience in the profession.  He’s a bit of a firebrand, and one who tends to attract a good deal of controversy when he speaks up on an issue.  This time, it’s concerning indigent defense in Tennessee, a point near and dear to my heart.  That said, there’s a few things I want cleared up concerning these letters sent to a state Senator, one State Representative, and to Tennessee’s Indigent Defense Task Force.

  1. To Senator Overbey: I’d love to meet with you sometime and talk about what life is like learning to practice law absent any mentor or guidance.  I doubt you’ll ever take the time to learn what life is like from a trench lawyer’s point of view that came into the profession right when the law school bubble burst and jobs got scarce.  I’d love to get to know you, but I doubt very seriously you’ll take the time to have that conversation.

    That said, if you’re really that interested in talking, I definitely think someone on your staff needs to be ready to explain the comments my pal discussed when you poo-poohed the idea of raising indigent defense rates because it was an issue of “supply and demand,” and as long as there were enough hungry lawyers willing to take cases at a $40/hour rate then you wouldn’t be keen on raising rates of compensation for indigent defense attorneys.  I’ve seen Knoxville’s budgets for the last couple of years.  I’ve seen the State’s budgets for the last couple of years.  When you devote enough time to moving funds from a “diversity and inclusion” office at the University of Tennessee to putting “In God We Trust” stickers on cop cars, you’ve got the time and energy to come up with the funds for better pay on indigent defense.

You’ve got no one on your staff at the firm you run who relies on money from court appointed counsel.  One big reason I stopped attending Knoxville Bar Association “Barrister’s” events was listening to your Gay Street associates muse over whether they should enter their respective firms’ “Health and Wellness” programs for an extra $5,000 bonus.  You may write it off, but those of us who are running solo practices don’t.  Those of us who are in General Sessions on arraignment day or on Division Street looking for work are in agreement this isn’t a good look for you or your positions.

However “caustic” my language may be, I’m always willing to talk, Senator.  As long as we’re talking, we’re working for a solution.

2. With regards to Representative Lundberg, I have faith in his desire to see indigent defense bettered through the creation of the Task Force.  I want to make an unequivocal statement that at no point did he ever make any sort of statements that he wanted to “ruin my career” or otherwise.  I do take issue, respectfully, with the fact he’s got no one on the Task Force that has skin in the game when it comes to court appointed work.  I also take issue with his comments this Task Force was created to make sure “people with money hired lawyers instead of asking the state for a free one” and that he knew no rates of pay would ever raise for counsel in Tennessee. Finally, I take issue with the formation of the Task Force as currently constructed with no person relying on indigent defense work to keep the lights on.

3. The case my pal speaks of, in all fairness, was a stinker for him.  He’s a great lawyer in his own right, but sometimes we as lawyers have to attempt making chicken salad out of chicken shit.  That said, he’s right: I’ve had no mentors on which I could rely since I started practicing law, and have only recently managed to expand my sphere of influence and connections to a point where if I need help with an issue, or if I need to refer a client to someone, I can do that.  It took me five years to get there, but I’m grateful for the experience and the chance to become as resourceful as I am when dealing with cases.

4. I actually agree with a few of the points made by the Task Force, Chairman Koch, Representative Lundberg, and others.  There’s a problem with indigent defense funding when some counties hand out court appointed attorneys like candy and others stringently check to see if a person truly cannot afford reasonable attorney fees.

5. Despite my pal’s “brief” to the Task Force, I don’t take indigent cases anymore.  I think the work’s important, but I reached a point in my career where I had to make a decision between doing work I hated and not getting paid or actually doing work I loved and getting paid.  That jump meant going from taking every court appointed case I could find to spending more time marketing, networking, and learning about the way business actually works.

That said, we’re reaching a tipping point in this state when it comes to indigent defense.  New Orleans is the proverbial canary in the coal mine when it comes to this crisis.  Right now they’re so strapped for effective representation the Public Defender’s office has stopped taking cases.  That led to one judge releasing several people accused of violent crimes and a suit by the ACLU.  This is an issue to which the State of Tennessee cannot, and must not turn a blind eye.

To my readers in Knoxville or the surrounding areas: I’ll be speaking at the University of Tennessee, Room 132, starting at 11:00 AM on Friday, May 20 about the big issues facing the Task Force.  If you’re a lawyer reading this, you might want to consider coming to see the Task Force explain why rates of pay will never get raised.  If you’re a non-lawyer, you might want to attend to see just how the State views you if you’re charged with any offense.  It’ll be an interesting discussion.