In 1991, I had a summer filled with aha, light-bulb, found-my-calling moments, when I worked as a student investigator at the Public Defender Service in Washington, DC. The first time I watched a young man being led into a courtroom in custody and a public defender fighting for his freedom, I connected with a sense of purpose. Even though I was deeply anxious about public speaking (still am), I had the crazy idea that maybe I was meant to do that thing.
I was filled with pride and anticipation when I joined the Alameda County Public Defender in Oakland, California, an office a few miles away from the Berkeley house I was born in.
This photo, after one of my first misdemeanor trials, shows me holding the eagle art we posed with after an acquittal. The eagle is swooping down toward a mouse on the ground; the mouse is flipping off the eagle. I couldn’t get enough. I missed weddings, family reunions and funerals for trials. I worked a lot. All. The. Time.
Seven years later, I slid into my cubicle desk, opened a document, and watched words appear on the screen that seemed typed by hands disconnected from the rest of me. I was surprised and confused to see my own resignation letter appearing in front of me.
I was 33 years old, seven years into a public defender career I thought I would stay in forever. I had no job lined up, no idea how I’d pay the bills. It didn’t feel like a decision. It felt like I couldn’t stay there for five more minutes, like there was no oxygen left in the room. I fled the blur of motions, trials, midnight laundry, clients dying, vending machine lunches. Burnout.
I didn’t practice law for three years. I had this idea that doing “happy things” would make me happy, so I taught yoga and wrote for magazines and rode a motorcycle. When I wasn’t sufficiently brimming with happiness, I danced on rooftops in Cuba, ran a marathon and spent hours in my darkroom. The happiness quest made me somewhat happier until it didn’t. I felt separated from my own sense of purpose. After three years, I went back to being a public defender.
Since returning to public defense in 2007, I’ve explored how to do it differently. I think a lot about how to stay, how to develop strategies to re-charge my batteries and sustain this work.
At first, I kept this exploration to myself. Public defense is still a professions where tough it out, don’t complain, don’t show weakness culture prevails. When I occasionally whispered to colleagues, I actually burned out and left for several years, the response was not what I expected (awkward sidelong glances and people skittering away from me). It was an outpouring of similar stories. A comment became a conversation became a talk became a well-being workshop became a series of workshops that can’t begin to keep up with the demand. There seem to be many, many public defenders who are eager to have this discussion. How do we stay? We don’t want to leave but we are struggling. How do we sustain this work?
I have some ideas and so I created a site to continue the discussion. Please tell me what you think and send me your ideas if you’d like to contribute to this site.
And all you fierce freedom fighter public defenders out there, please take care of yourselves.