As a lawyer you see it all … “the oily wheels of every fortune, the hideous wrangling of heirs over corpses not yet cold, the human heart grappling with the Penal Code” (BALZAC, Honoré de (1799-1850) : Le Notaire (1840).
You also get your brain picked.
A woman of my wisened age & dotage knows what it’s like living in a lawyer’s body … & gett’n her brain picked.
Sometimes I want to run, keep running, especially when I meet someone who knows I’m a lawyer but I don’t know them.
“Um, heard you’re a lawyer. Wondering, can you give me some quick advice?”
“Hi, how are you? Somebody said you’re a lawyer. Any chance I can pick your brain a bit?”
Ah, jeez, brain picking again. There are friends & neighbours who tout me for advice, free advice. Casual acquaintances do the same. Then there are people I hardly know, some I’ve not heard from in a long time like fellow high school students. Yes, a long time. And then there are those, others, who should know better, and/or who expect everything for nothing not just once but multiple times.
“Hey Karen, how you go’in? Haven’t seen you in years! Um, just checking if we could maybe catch up sometime, say, over a coffee? Got a few questions to ask you. OK if I maybe pick your brain for a bit?”
“Hi Karen, you free anytime for a quick chat. Gotta a few things I wanna chat about.”
“Hi Karen. How you going? Long time no see. Look, hope you don’t mind me asking but I’ve got this issue with … & I really need some help, to know if, what … “
Do you ever get your brain picked? Sounds like hen-pecked doesn’t it. Feels like it sometimes.
If I have time I allow my brain to be picked – informally, to a point, for little while. I listen, get some grasp of the issue, then politely & firmly advise the person to make an appointment. It’s important to set the record, to formalize the relationship straight away. I am not a ‘free lawyer’ – a giver of free assistance to be approached or contacted anytime, anywhere.
Being a lawyer often changes the dynamics of interaction, the relationship between me & the other person. Frustrating when I want to be anonymous of professional status, when I just want to be an ordinary private person. The lawyer part invades my privacy, my personal space which, at times, can be quite annoying, even suffocating.
Of course, this is not unique to the legal profession.
Imagine being a doctor “Let me tell you about my bladder”
Imagine being a plumber “Hey can you drop by & fix my toilet?”
So, yes, there are others in other professions who have similar experiences.
The holy grail is to escape being judged by one’s education & profession. That’s why, being with strangers who don’t know I’m a lawyer, can be refreshing. They judge me as a ‘standard issue’ woman (if there’s such a thing but you know what I mean) & not as a lawyer, a lawyer the butt of bad jokes, a lawyer for free brain picking or, dare I say, a lawyer to denigrate.
Social situations can be tricky especially if people are imbibing. Hallelujah! The inevitable brain picking, the requests for free advice are trotted out often accompanied by a down right grumpy view of lawyers.
But nothing can beat the Question, yes, that Question:
“How can you defend those people when you know they are guilty?”
You explain that you cannot know if a client is guilty if he or she denies it. You never saw them do the alleged act. You might think a person is guilty, or not, based on the evidence but it is up to the jury & the judge to decide not you. You must put forward the case for your client whether you believe in it or not. You cannot put forward what you know to be a false case.
“Honestly, how can you defend those creeps when you know they are guilty as sin?”
You explain that you’re defending their legal rights. Great principals such as the right to a fair trial & the presumption of innocence. Giving them ‘a fair go’ is the Australian ethos, a fair trial. Your client has the right not to be tried unfairly. You tell them you work within the rules of law & ethics of the legal profession.
To be fair this post doesn’t allow me the space to explain what motivates me to represent the criminally accused. What I can say is that it’s a combination of factors including a commitment to justice & the right to a fair trial both critical legal & ethical principles in our criminal justice system in Australia. I realised years ago, when working in the USA criminal justice system, that I could never be a prosecutor. It’s in my DNA to defend. Still, the questions & comments pour out:
“Don’t you get scared? I couldn’t go to Yatala, Cadell, Northfield or any prison or jail. Ugh. No way.”
“I don’t know how you sleep at night. I know I couldn’t.”
“You got time for a chat over coffee? My shout! I really need to pick your brain.”
“Hey, listen, a friend of a friend’s sister recommended you. Said you were really good and got people off. You got a minute? I really need to pick your brain.”
“Oh you’re a lawyer. Um, let me tell you about my ex partner, the dirty rotten *%^x*!!@#!….”
“I heard you’re a lawyer. Can I ask you a few questions about my case?”
Yes, I think to myself, I’m a lawyer & you can ask me a few questions, to a point. But have you hired me? Right now, I’m not your lawyer & not until you formally retain me can I help you.
“Let me tell you about my mother’s father’s last will and testament & that bloody, bogan brother of mine. What a lying thief he is!”
I make a mental note to, again, point out that I’m a criminal defence lawyer & that the person should see a lawyer who handles wills, estates & probate.
“Look, mate, we all know there’s no such thing as justice. The police lie all the time. It’s all about who’s got the best lawyer isn’t it” “Well, with all those billable hours you won’t ever be short of a quid will you?”
This last comment often comes after I’ve explained two things: that I’m a criminal defence lawyer & that much of my work is done on a pro bono basis (for free) & includes a high proportion of legal aid clients, the undeserved members of the community.
And of course, the bad lawyer jokes never disappear! Spare me. You can see why I just want to be an ordinary woman without the lawyer baggage.
“Er, you’re a lawyer then. Hey, I’ve got this great joke. You’ll love it!”
“Honestly, Karen, you’ve gotta hear this joke.”
The revenge of the lawyers jokes . . . . I make a mental note to tell the person when next they need advice & representation, to go see a comedian.
Then there’s the inevitable questions & comments about lawyers’ court room dress, the black robes & white jabots worn in various courts, much of them (the questions) understandable. Certainly there is intrigue with court dress in Australia.
“Why do ya’ll wear that stuff, you know, that wig thingy, the frilly white thing and that black cloak dress garb?”
“How do you stop the wig falling off?”
“Is it itchy?
“Why do you dress like a witch?”
“Why do you wear those stupid wigs?
Lawyer scrutiny is a most popular past-time for some. Some people enjoy lawyer bashing.
“Those damn lawyers!” “It’s their fault!”
There are those who hate lawyers until they need one & then things change rapidly. The call for help comes any time, day or night. It’s fascinating to watch people suddenly change their tune & start appreciating me & what I do.
… such are the perils of being trapped in a lawyer’s body.