[Or: Leave your ego in law school]
When Ahmed Kenyatta Ebron was told by his lawyer that he should reject the State’s offer and instead plead guilty without an agreement because “he couldn’t do much worse or words to that effect”, he did what all of us usually hope our clients do: take our advice.
At this open plea, armed with the client’s record and an unfavorable pre-sentence investigation report, the judge imposed a sentence of 11 years to serve, 5 more than the State’s offer of 6.
Mr. Ebron, relying on counsel’s advice, is serving 5 more years than he should be. For now, at least. His conviction has been reversed, based on ineffective assistance of counsel, and that reversal has survived the Appellate Court (I’m not optimistic about its chances at the Supreme Court).
The events leading up to Mr. Ebron’s conviction, the habeas itself and the aftermath raise several points.
First, it is easy to forget that at the end of the day, we are in a service industry. As criminal defense lawyers, our job description is limited to the service of another. We are protecting the rights of others, we are helping others make important decisions about their lives and we are, ultimately, representatives of other people.
That this is easy to forget should come as no surprise. Lawyers have famously large egos. But there is a danger in letting the sense of self overwhelm the duty and responsibility that we have.
It is that duty to the client that compels us to treat each case with the attention that we would give to it were we the defendant. There is no greater sin that can be committed by the defense lawyer than misadvising the client.
Clients rely on us to show them the way, to spell out the alternatives and to recommend one over the other, based on our knowledge, skill and experience, keeping their best interests in mind.
It is imperative that we fully inform ourselves of the facts and circumstances of the client’s case and then, and only then, recommend a final course of action.
I am not suggesting that we must force a client to take our advice; the client remains free to make stupid decisions. But the advice that we give clients must be sound. There are some that take the view that our job is to present the alternatives to the client and then accept whatever decision the client makes. I am not of that view. I believe – and certainly I may take some flak for this – that it is our responsibility to do our best to convince the client to choose the course of action that is in his/her best interests, despite the client’s seeming disapproval of that path.
This, however, can only be done if the advice we give is informed. We can only stand behind the advice we give if we are convinced that it is the best alternative and that decision can only be made with a full understanding of all the circumstances and an awareness of the pitfalls of that and every other course of action. If someone else, years down the road, decides that the advice was unreasonable, so be it. No one gets hurt by that and it only helps the client.
Ebron’s lawyer didn’t do that (and to his credit, took responsibility for it). The standard for effective assistance of counsel is woefully low. To scrape by and meet Constitutional scrutiny, a lawyer needn’t do much. But if you’re aiming for the standard, then you’re not really fulfilling your duty. If you truly believe it is sufficient to perform at a minimum level, then there are other areas of law that might be better suited for you. Stop meddling with the liberties and freedoms of fellow men and women.
Ineffective assistance of counsel is a sort of “dirty” phrase in the criminal defense world. It is viewed by many as a personal attack and is met with scorn, anger and derision directed toward those who practice in the post-conviction arena. That this view is prevalent among the bar is alarming. It belies a fundamental misunderstanding of the duties and responsibilities of the defense lawyer in the criminal justice system.
IAC claims are not a taint on your reputation nor is it an indictment of your abilities. It is a recognition of the simple fact that we are all working within a juggernaut of a system that from time to time overwhelms even the best of us.
At the end of the day, it is you and I who go home to our comfortable beds. You and I have the ability to walk outside in the free world and to buy what we choose and talk to whom we want, whenever we want. To place our petty egos and some twisted sense of self-worth before the complaints of the convicted client, who has nothing but a badly beaten and bruised writ to use to seek his release from the oppressive conditions of confinement in our penal institutions is pettiness of the ugliest kind.
The local listserve erupted with comments after the release of the Ebron decision: there were voices from both sides – those that praised the decision and those that lamented the additional burdens it seemingly placed on the defense lawyer (based, it seems to me, on a misreading of the case and the responsibilities it underlines).
Why does IAC evoke such polarized reactions among us? Are we that sensitive? Or is it because we view ourselves as separate and distinct from our clients? Do we believe that the players in the criminal justice system are the State, the judge, the defendant and the defense lawyer? If so, that is a terribly misbegotten view.
This may be getting repetitive, but it cannot be said enough that in order to truly serve our clients we must view ourselves as nothing but an extension of the individual client. We must be the client, at every moment that we represent them. We – criminal defense lawyers – are not parties to a criminal case. The client is. We are his representative. We must, at all times, remember that and act like it.
I will not lie to help a client, but I will not add my name to the list of those that violate his Constitutional rights.