From the Chief's Desk

By Alex Bunin

I just turned 64 and have been a criminal defense lawyer for 37 of those years. Thirty were as a public defender and 28 of those were spent establishing and managing offices as a chief defender. It does not mean I know everything regarding running public defender offices or about practicing criminal defense. However, I have learned a few things which I believe are true.

One thing I learned is that everyone has different roles in the criminal legal system and their jobs often define how those persons relate to others. It is easy to appreciate those persons most closely aligned with your goals and dislike those who regularly oppose you. From a defense perspective, that can mean animosity toward prosecutors and judges who challenge your work and generosity toward those who are understanding, or at least hospitable. The problem with these understandably emotional responses is that one can let their guard down to the detriment of clients.

Being too hostile or too friendly to judges or prosecutors, particularly in courtrooms, can cause problems. It can upset clients to see their lawyer joking with their judge or prosecutor. It raises fears that everyone is working together against them. I once had a client ask if I played golf with the prosecutor and the judge. (I don’t play golf). I call all judges “judge” even if I had a relationship with them before they came to the bench and even outside the courthouse.

Being too hostile is equally detrimental. The lawyer who gets angry, or is merely annoying, will sometimes get their way by wearing others down. However, the defense lawyer is the least powerful person in the courtroom and losing the benefit of the doubt from opponents can be very costly. It can invite subtle attacks or openly hostile opposition. Only very experienced lawyers know when to strategically cause a judge or prosecutor to overreact. It is better not to chance it.

Ideally one should act between those extremes. Be cordial to all, but keep your distance. I recently had a judge contact me about an issue in her court. She was someone I knew before she was a judge. I could tell she just wanted someone to reassure her that her old friends did not now hate her. I explained as best I could that judges and defense lawyers have different goals and not to take it personally. It is the same I would tell anyone in this line of work. Be known by your professionalism and not your unchecked emotions.