Identity and Boundaries in Public Defense

Healthy boundaries start with the way we define our identities as public defenders. Is it something we do, or is it who we are? I am drawn to slogans and t-shirts that champion public defense as who I am, but I also recognize that it is dangerous and potentially damaging to me to define myself entirely by my work as a public defender. Where does that leave other parts of my life, the other people in my life? What happens when I take a break from or stop being a public defender?

To be clear, I think the notion that work and life can be compartmentalized is crazy and untrue. The goal is to support your whole self and show up as your whole self in all the parts of your life.

But it is important to put some parameters around the work part when you have work that can be very intrusive.

Useful boundary setting practices for the work day and work week include:

  1. Commit to off hours. Set a start time and end time for the work day and try to manage your time to stay within it. Set parameters around weekend work time (ex: 9-12 on Saturday) rather than letting the work expand to fill all the time that isn’t specifically scheduled for other things.
  2. Set work goals around time not task. Set a goal to leave at a designated time—such at 6 pm– not to complete the entire to do list before leaving. It will never be completed. You will build habits of working more efficiently and being realistic in estimating turnaround time for tasks.
  3. Set routines and rituals to end the work day. Clear your desk, update your prioritized task list and leave.
  4. Set transition markers. Create a transition marker along the way home—an intersection you drive though or train/bus station you pass—to transition from work thoughts to home thoughts. How was my partner’s day? My child’s day at school?
  5. Give honest timeframes. To managers for projects, to clients for motions. Be honest about your available time and what you are capable of completing, while maintaining your rest time. You can work around the clock for a project or a trial, but not for decades.
  6. Accept structural limitations as structural. One of the hardest parts of public defense is the stress of feeling you’re not doing enough and knowing that the reality is that some things are not getting done, and that most of us will never reach end of the task list—and the “task list” is filled with urgent needs of people who are suffering. This can be very demoralizing. Recognize that this is structural under resourcing of public defense, not a personal defect or shortcoming.

What do you think? What helps you set useful boundaries in public defense?

When We Can’t Do it All: Efficiency and Time Management

The A-Z Guide has been updated (in the downloadable materials section of the site) and includes the thoughts below of working efficiently–as a tool to support boundaries. Please share your thoughts and additional suggested tools.

Efficiency and Time Management

Being able to establish boundaries and take time for rest and rejuvenation requires systems to organize and prioritize work, and to maximize efficiency during your work time. There needs to be an overall system to prioritize and track work, to filter in new cases and tasks, to adjust due dates as tasks are re-triaged, and to locate status updates quickly (for calls from investigators, clients the client family members, etc). There needs to be a workflow with predictable turnaround times, in order to give honest and realistic estimations when asked how long until you’ll get that motion filed? There needs to be a way to tuck in all the tasks at the end of the day so they don’t poke you incessantly at 3 a.m. and keep you awake.

Efficiency Strategies  
Communication: Stop checking email, voicemail, etc. more than twice per day. Turn off notifications. Set times with parameters to check communications (10-130 am and 330-4 pm), and filter tasks into priority lists.  
1.Delete unnecessary emails.
2.Delegate. While organizing your emails, you may find some emails which may need some action, but not from you.
3.Respond. Can the email you’ve run into be answered in under two minutes? If so, take the time and answer it.
The strength of this system is getting away from using your inbox as a disorganized and non-prioritized task list, which constantly interrupts your work and hijacks your priorities list.
 (From: Merlin Mann YouTube video, 7/23/07.)
Stop Multitasking: Do not be fooled into thinking you can do everything, all at once, all the time. Someone called this multitasking and set us all up for a lot of stress and disappointment. Multitasking doesn’t work and isn’t good for you.  
Separate organizing from working: Have designated times for checking messages and getting organized and designated time for uninterrupted writing and thinking—like with your door closed and your notifications off.  
Manage incoming communications: Decide the times you’ll check and respond to email, text, etc. Don’t let it hijack you day by continually interrupting.  
Work to your strengths: As much as you can within your assignment, work to your own strengths, such as (my version): using the 7-8 am window for the most challenging thinking/writing/innovating tasks that require fresh clear thinking; using the late afternoon lull for non-tasking administrative tasks, such as updating my case list and task list.  

What do you think? What additional tools and strategies do you suggest?

What is the gold standard of public defense coverage?

What is the gold standard of coverage, so that people can have restful and undisturbed time away from work? I tried to crowdsource this question on social media in January 2021, and most of the replies I received were something like what is this time off of which you speak?

Taking vacations is one of the single best predictors of overall well-being. The 2018 ABA Well-Being Toolkit points out, at p 12: “In their study of 6,000 practicing lawyers, law professor Larry Krieger and psychology professor Kennon Sheldon found that the number of vacation days taken was a significant predictor of lawyer wellbeing–and was stronger even than income level in predicting well-being.”

Many public defenders don’t take vacations. I know many who are losing vacation accrual because they’ve exceeded the maximum number of unused vacation days. Some take vacation days to have uninterrupted prep time before trials or big hearings, because their court schedules include no prep time. Many describe taking vacation as too punishing to even bother, due to crushing caseload and lack of effective coverage.

These same obstacles can cause defenders to come to work sick rather than calling in for coverage. I’ve heard too many stories of colleagues rushing from a family crises or car collision to get to court on time. We, and our office cultures and policies, create these expectations of ourselves. We need to uncreate them and create a new model.

Taking a restful vacation (or other time away) requires adequate coverage. It is unreasonably and unnecessarily stressful to worry that clients are standing alone in court with no one standing next to them, or to return to angry and frustrated clients who had motions dropped or cases continued unexpectedly with no explanation.

For a small office, having a court partner or a small team can provide built in coverage for brief absences. This requires a culture of clear communication and cohesion, in which people volunteer and cover for each other with the knowledge that the same coverage will be extended to them. However, for a lengthy vacation or trial, it’s not reasonable to ask a court partner to do double work for a period of weeks or months.

The “knock on doors and find coverage” method might occasionally work, but can result in people perpetually overloading less senior staff who feel disempowered and unable to say no.

The “just clear your cases” method might work for short absences, but should never require a defender to choose between taking time off and pursuing an action most beneficial to the client. For example, if a client is clearly better off doing a motion hearing during the attorney’s planned absence, adequate coverage should be provided to seek to accomplish this. The attorney should never be required to convince a client to waive a speedy trial right or delay a motion in order to take a vacation. This is not reasonable.

I have worked in large offices that have a person assigned to the coverage/miscellaneous assignment, who spends the day darting from courtroom to courtroom covering cases for absent colleagues. This can work very well.

Whatever the set-up, adequate coverage has the following components:

  1. The person who will be absent is expected to leave sufficient notes/memo/coverage information for another person to provide high quality advocacy.
  2. The person who will be absent is expected to avoid setting cases while away as long as no interest of a client is harmed (but clients are not asked to waive or give up rights for staff vacations; staff are not required to choose between time off and pressuring clients to agree to continue proceedings that are not in their interest to continue).
  3. There is a clear procedure for the person who will be absent to seek coverage and provide the coverage instructions, and a person assigned to cover tasks and cases, with sufficient time to prepare (ideally this is done by a supervisor, and not by going door to door begging for help).
  4. The person covering the cases is expected to provide meaningful advocacy (communicate with the clients, argue motions or resolve cases to the extent possible, not just continue everything).
  5. Both the person who is absent and the person who is covering provide clear and timely communication about the coverage.
  6. A supervisor/manager is responsible for ensuring timely coverage assignments and is available to provide the coverage when needed.

A second obstacle to taking meaningful time off is the failure to pause new assignments during an absence. Many defenders describe returning from time away to a towering pile of tasks or cases that were assigned during the absence. This amounts to an expectation of actually working the hours that were taken as leave time, typically by doubling up as soon as you return to work and adding hours to be worked without compensation during evenings and weekends in addition to full time work. This is a particular insanity that occurs throughout PD offices. Not only is this an unreasonable work expectation, but it means returning to work feeling behind and facing people who are reasonably frustrated that no one has met with them or been working on their cases. Defenders describe this as so punishing and demoralizing that they don’t take vacation at all. Are there other professions that expect time off to be “made up” by working the hours to cover and complete all the work that would have occurred during the hours taken off? This is not reasonable or sustainable.

Post or send me your thoughts? What is your office doing well to provide coverage and uninterrupted work time?

A New Study on Public Defense Well-Being: The Stress of Injustice

A new study of public defenders was published on Dec. 12, 2020, entitled The Stress of Injustice: Public Defenders and the Frontline of American Inequality, by Baćak, Valerio and Lageson, Sarah and Powell, Kathleen. It is summarized by The Crime Report in Public Defenders Suffer From the ‘Stress of Injustice’: Study (Jan. 26, 2021).

Both the article summary and the study itself are worth reading, offering perhaps the first study I’ve seen that examines the problem at the systemic level and offers systemic solutions. That’s right, not a single mention of curing everything with yoga and lavender oil—both of which I appreciate for helping me cope with the symptoms of job stress, while I understand that systemic solutions are needed to address the causes of that chronic job stress.

Using semi-structured interviews, these researchers at Rutgers University and Drexel University applied a series of tools to assess the “social and psychological demands of working in a punitive system with laws and practices that target and punish those who are the most disadvantaged” to a sample of 87 public defenders across the United States.

They found three “major stressors” of injustice that affected the emotional health of those practicing indigent defense just as definitively as the individuals they defended:

(1)    penal excess

(2)    economic divestment and 

(3)    the criminalization of mental illness.

While the researchers said their study was not designed to suggest policy, they noted their findings implied approaches that could mitigate public defenders’ occupational stress. Possible approaches included:

(1)    Increase funding for public defenders;

(2)    Provide assistance with secondary trauma as soon as an attorney starts a job;

(3)    Introduce workplace interventions for overworked attorneys to reduce occupational stress;

(4) Educate young attorneys about stress management early in their careers, or even in law school.

3 Spheres of Public Defense Well-Being: A Framework for Understanding Impacts and Obstacles, and for Responding with Appropriate Tools and Strategies

I’ve been thinking for a while about a useful framework for discussing well-being in public defense. I believe there are three spheres relevant to our well-being in public defense work: self, service and system. These three spheres provide a useful framework for understanding impacts, obstacles and challenges to sustaining well being, and also guide us in responding with appropriate tools and strategies

The Self sphere refers to the personal experiences we bring to this work and the personal practices we rely on to sustain us—things like mindfulness or gratitude journals. This circle also includes the ways we approach our work, like struggles with boundaries or work addiction. And it includes the basic self-maintenance like proper sleep, nutrition and exercise.

The Service sphere contains the impacts of this work. Public defense work has undeniable traumatic impacts that we must mitigate and process in order to stay in this work. It also includes public defense culture—the leadership, training, mentorship and support that impacts well-being.

The System sphere contains the larger systemic obstacles discourage us and wear us down when they get in the way of us providing the high quality and client centered representation that motivated us to do this work in the first place. System obstacles are things like high caseloads, racist systems, under resourced offices, and hostility toward the defense function from other system actors.

What public defenders need to sustain well-being are strategies in all three spheres.

(1) Individual strategies and practices to promote wellness and to mitigate inevitable impacts of trauma.

(2) Colleagues and leaders that build a culture that supports well-being.

(3) Systemic strategies to reduce obstacles to providing highest levels of representation.

It is essential to match the appropriate response and strategy to the obstacle or impact. It is common to shift the responsibility to the individual to fix everything with self-care. But systemic obstacles need systemic responses.

What do you think? Let me know if this framework feels useful to you. It’s one small piece of the A-Z Resource Guide I’ve been working on. A new update has been uploaded.