Soldier On, Lawyers
In celebration of “Be Kind to Lawyers Day” coming up on April 9th
Lawyers are at rock bottom. Only 18% of the population perceives lawyers to contribute “a lot” to society. This was the conclusion of a 2013 Pew Research Center study regarding the perceived contribution to society of various professions and try though I might, I couldn’t find any more updated data on this point. Perhaps the researchers didn’t want to report a possible lower number. Paradoxically, the same study showed that soldiers were at the top of the list with a whopping 78% vote of confidence. I presume that explains why there are national holidays honoring soldiers, but I’m pretty sure banks and courthouses will still be open on “Be Kind to Lawyers Day” coming up on April 9th.
In 1787 our country’s founders assembled for a Constitutional Convention. Those founders, mostly lawyers, were tasked with creating a new form of government. Ratification of the United States Constitution hinged on the addition of a Bill of Rights presenting clear limitations on governmental intrusion into our lives.
But documents are only as good as the people who make good on their contents. It’s easy to create a document worthy of framing at the Smithsonian Museum reciting an intent to preserve freedoms, but it is quite another to preserve those freedoms daily. Who acts as the watchdogs of those freedoms? Lawyers. Who ensures that everyone accused of a crime is entitled to due process? Lawyers. Who prepares for battle in a jury trial, making sure that the evidence against the accused was not gained through an unlawful intrusion into their private homes? Lawyers.
During my first few years as a criminal defense lawyer, my clients were a collection of (1) guilty as charged; (2) guilty of something, but not as charged; (3) not guilty; or (4) their guilt or innocence was unknown to me. I approached each case with the same frame of mind, innocent until proven guilty. Each client, no matter the crime alleged, is entitled to due process and fundamental fairness. It was not my place to render moral or legal judgments about my clients; that was the job of the judge and jury. It was my job to safeguard the defendant’s protections enshrined in the Constitution. On the other side, it was the prosecutor’s duty to present the government’s best evidence and arguments in favor of conviction. As long as both sides faithfully execute their roles, the process should ensure that innocent people are found “not guilty” and those proven guilty are found “guilty” by a jury of their peers. That is a value to society, a crucial contribution.
What if I got sloppy or failed in my role of protecting Constitutional processes? What if I did not “fight” to make sure that every step in the criminal prosecution process was followed to the letter? The system would fail. Eventually, no Constitutional rights would remain.
Every time I defended someone in court, I was fulfilling a crucial role in our country, the role of Constitutional watchdog and protector. I was protecting not only my client’s constitutional rights, but yours and mine too.
It isn’t just in criminal courts, however, that lawyers fight for others’ rights. Every day, lawyers fight in courts, legislatures, and administrative proceedings for equal treatment of women, minorities, and those disadvantaged in the workplace, the classroom, and every other corner of our society. They even fight for veterans to get the benefits and medical treatment promised by our government in exchange for their service to our country. Every day, lawyers fight to ensure that children are cared for, educated, and not overworked. Were it not for lawyers, women would not be allowed to vote, African Americans would still be counted as one-third of a person, schools would be segregated, and people would be denied employment because of a disability.
A warrior’s life isn’t easy, whether on a battlefield with bullets or in a courtroom or legislature with words. It’s not easy fighting for others every day, being the buffer for their pain and angst. It can and does take a toll on a lawyer’s personal life. It goes home with them and often keeps them awake at night. Maybe for just one day–April 9, 2019–let’s be kind to lawyers. A smile, a friendly note, a cup of coffee. They may have ticked you off yesterday, but tomorrow you may need them. And they will be there. For you. For us. For our Constitution.
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