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. Better known as free advice. Pro bono legal services.
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. Just wonder’n, can you give me some quick advice mate?” Before I can utter a word, whisk myself away, she starts telling me her life story, her dark, piercing eyes glued to my face . . . I could see this was not going to be met with quick advice.
“Hi, how ya goin? Somebody said you’re a lawyer. Any chance I can pick yer brain a bit?” Ah, jeez, brain picking time 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 many years, ions, even fellow high school students . . . a long time ago. 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. OK if I maybe pick your brain for a bit?” Most times I can avoid these free advice sessions, these coffee & chat sessions, because I’m simply not available. Other times I quickly shift the brain into gear, into warp speed mode, to create an excuse for being unavailable. Sometimes I just shrug and endure it.
“Hi Karen, you free anytime for a quick chat.” I freeze. “Gotta a few things I wanna ask about.” I stay frozen.
“You got a minute?” Not now I mutter to myself.
“Hi Karen. 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, to know what …” Oh god. Not again I think. I smile grimly thinking how to take my leave? He talks such an awful lot, fast, rambling. I would have liked to do a little talking myself but I cant get a word in. The pain of it!
Do you ever get your brain picked? Sounds like hen-pecked doesn’t it. Feels like being hen-pecked 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(s). Frustrating when I want to be anonymous of professional status, when I just want to be an ordinary woman. The lawyer part invades my privacy, my personal space which, at times, can be annoying at best, constraining at worst. Of course, this is not unique to the legal profession.
Imagine being a doctor “Let me tell you about my bladder” or “Hey doc, I’m having a few problems down there . . .
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 your profession. That’s why being with people who don’t know I’m a lawyer is so 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, 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.
“Don’t you get scared? I couldn’t go to Yatala, Cadell, or any prison or jail. Ugh. No way.”
“I don’t know how you sleep at night. I know I couldn’t.”
“How can you represent those people?”
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:
“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!” Again I make a mental note to 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!” or “Honestly, Karen, you’ve gotta hear this joke.” The revenge of the lawyers jokes . . . one makes a mental note to tell the person who told the joke when next they need advice & representation, to go see a comedian.
Then there’s the inevitable questions & comments about the legal fashion, the lawyers’ court room dress, the black robes, horsehair wigs & white jabots worn in various courts, much of them (the questions) understandable. What other profession wears such fusty and out of touch gear? Certainly there is intrigue with court dress in Australia.
“Why do ya’ll wear that stuff, you know, that white wig thingy, that thing on your neck?” “What’s with the black gown?” “How do you stop the wig falling off?” “Why do you wear that stupid wig? “Is it itchy?
While legal regalia may seem anachronistic & outdated to some, others say it dignifies & gives formality to the proceedings. Lawyers & judges in Australia (mainly criminal lawyers) wear the garb to maintain tradition & as part of the symbolic distancing effort, for anonymity, & to symbolise the authority of the profession in court. It preserves anonymity for lawyers – both prosecution & defence – especially in criminal matters. Lawyers & judges are identified as members of a profession, not as individuals. The peruke or ‘powdered’ wig (Fr: perruque or peruque poudree) brings a sense of formality & solemnity to proceedings.
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, run them down, avoid them, 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 us lawyers & what we do.
Such are the perils of being trapped in a lawyer’s body