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A great criminal defense attorney is a zealot, despite its negative connotations

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Lara Bazelon

Lara Bazelon.

The defense attorney-client relationship is like no other. It’s a tie that binds two very different people caught up in a high stakes battle—over money, custody, liability, freedom—even life. A client tells defense counsel sacred secrets carried to the grave.

The relationship also defies categorization. It isn’t familial or grounded in friendship. It isn’t sexual. And yet, it is inherently romantic; propelled by ardent need, it is at times surprisingly intimate. The bond asserts primacy, often to the detriment of others.

In law school, students are taught that a good defense attorney is a “zealous advocate.”

The noun version of zealous is zealot, defined as a fanatical believer in a greater calling. A zealot, with all of its negative connotations, is not what law students are told to be. A zealot is an extremist consumed by blind fervor who does dangerous and terrible things.

But after 20 years of practicing criminal law, I have come to believe that any defense lawyer who aspires to excellence is by necessity a zealot. A lawyer with the fire in the brain.

The fire drives the lawyer to take the hard cases. Up against the law, the facts and power of the state, the defense lawyer gets punched in the face, pinned to the mat and pulverized by a foe endowed with endless resources. There is vanishingly little they would not do for a client in dire straits, even at the expense of people and institutions they love dearly.

Sir Henry Brougham, a Scotsman, member of the House of Commons and a very able attorney, made this point to a dubious British Parliament in 1820. That year, George IV ascended the throne, becoming king of England. Almost immediately, he sought to strip his wife, Caroline, of her title as queen. King George despised his wife, and when she would not be bribed into leaving quietly, he pressed his allies in Parliament to introduce a Bill of Pains and Penalties to exile her from the monarchy because she had consorted with “a foreigner of low station” while living abroad. It was Brougham’s job to defend the queen.

Witness after witness came forward with titillating details of Caroline’s purported perfidy, all second- or third-hand reports. This testimony, elicited by the solicitor general for England and Wales, went on for days in the House of Lords. Caroline’s reputation was in tatters, her claim to the throne increasingly tenuous.

What no one had counted on, however, was Brougham’s savvy and ferocity. A supporter of the abolitionist movement and of reforms to the legal system that perpetuated unfairness and inequity, Brougham fought back. The real culprit, Brougham told Parliament, was the king himself, a man of few scruples and excessive appetites, who had not only cheated on his wife with numerous women but had secretly married one of them.

When the prosecution rested and Brougham prepared to introduce these revelations, many prevailed upon him to hold his tongue. Disgracing the king in this way could imperil the monarchy. Better to stay silent than pose this existential threat. Refusing, he explained:

“An advocate, in the discharge of his duty, knows but one person in all the world, and that person is his client. To save that client by all means and expedients, and at all hazards and costs to other persons, and, among them, to himself, is his first and only duty; and in performing this duty he must not regard the alarm, the torments, the destruction which he may bring upon others.”

I often reflect on Brougham’s words. In my 20s and early 30s, when I was a deputy federal public defender living in Los Angeles, I spent most of my time at work. I thought about my clients’ problems constantly. When I left my job in 2008 to follow my then-boyfriend north, I transitioned into clinical teaching in a law school setting. That meant fewer clients and less time in court. I married my boyfriend, and we had two children. I assumed that these life changes and the greater domesticity associated with them would loosen my clients’ claim on my time and attention; that the fires they lit in my brain would be reduced to embers.

But that’s not what happened. In 2013, my law students and I fought to free a man who had been wrongfully convicted of murder. He spent 34 years in prison for a crime he did not commit. The weeks-long retrial took a year of preparation. The case was in Los Angeles; I lived with my husband in San Francisco, our children were 4 and 2. But I, like Brougham, knew only one person in the world. I left my family for long periods of time.

Today my client, who was exonerated, is home.

That client’s success story, however, is an anomaly. I’ve represented hundreds of people. Often, those cases end in abject failure: convictions, lengthy sentences, unsuccessful appeals to indifferent courts. That is what it means to represent people on the wrong side of the facts, on the wrong side of the law. That is what it means when, inside and outside of the legal system, your clients are viewed as disposable. For every falsely accused, wrongfully convicted, or excessively sentenced client who prevailed against long odds, there are hundreds more languishing. Some will never get out.

A few of the clients I did manage to help, got into worse trouble later on or died early. The endless frustration and mounting exhaustion, the rage and despair I feel when I look at this bigger picture is at times incapacitating. And yet, all these years later, there is still a fire in my brain. Sometimes, I wish it would die out.

Brougham’s defense of Queen Caroline drove public opinion toward his client. Faced with a tidal wave of outrage on her behalf, the prime minister withdrew the bill. Though King George refused to let his wife attend the coronation, he could not deprive her of her title. But she held it for a scant three weeks before falling ill and dying. Brougham’s great victory, like so many legal battles, proved to be a Pyrrhic one.

Why choose to be this kind of lawyer, the one who fights for a stranger without regard “to the alarm, the torments, the destruction” it visits upon others, who may be friends, family, loved ones or the victims of what your client is accused to have done? You will lose and lose and lose, and even when you win, sometimes you will lose anyway.

Defending a client is less a job than a siren call: “To save that client by all means and expedients, and at all hazards and costs to other persons, and, among them, to himself, is his first and only duty,” said Brougham.

Great lawyers believe this.

Sometimes, I picture a different life. In this life, I step back, step away. I create inviolable boundaries. But then I think of Brougham’s words and their wounding truth. To aspire to greatness as a lawyer is to be afflicted by a single-minded ruthlessness and overriding sense of obligation in pursuit of a victory that is, at best, unlikely and fleeting.

That is the only kind of lawyer I know how to be. A zealot.

Lara Bazelon is a professor at the University of San Francisco School of Law, where she is the Phillip and Muriel C. Barnett chair in trial advocacy and directs the Criminal Juvenile Justice and Racial Justice Clinical Programs. She is the author of the legal thriller A Good Mother.

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