Thursday, January 12, 2006

The Life and Death Of A Criminal Defense Lawyer

Alaska Attorney Bill Bryson, was a giant of a man and a giant of a lawyer. He was also my friend. He is dead, of a self inflicted gun shot wound. To have met Bill was to have adored him. He was erudite and yet plain spoken. He was funny and personable. He was urbane but yet country. The obituary tells of his struggles and successes.

I met Bill in early 1990's at an NACDL meeting. I was drawn to his laugh and sense of humor. NACDL meetings were a chance to blow off steam and learn to be a better lawyer at the same time. They bring together America's best criminal trial lawyers all into one place. The meetings are filled with information, technique and a little character building. The evenings filled with food and drink.

Laura Webster said that "the tradition of the criminal defense lawyer is a narrative one, and the education of the criminal defense lawyer has always been a uniquely oral experience." As they drank the "old-timers" would tell "war stories" of their trials. In the drink good humor usually followed. We novice lawyers would listen to these "courtroom warriors" pick apart each others work in delightful glee. They were funny and instructive. None more so than Bill Bryson. It seemed that Bill, even as he would fall slowly into inebriation, remembered that the novices among us were learning. He was teaching as well as remembering, instructing and "kibitzing", mentoring while teasing.

Many Criminal trial lawyers drink too much. Maybe it is a hazard of the work. It is hard to leave a case behind. People think that alcoholics lack willpower... No they have more will power than they know what to do with. They spend their days willing things to happen that by nature's law shouldn't occur. They spend their nights paying for it, unable to unwind, unable to let go. I have watched so many of my friends mentors and heroes tear their lives apart with alcohol and stress, cigarettes and coffee, and too many other combinations of "vices". All in an attempt to forget the case that sent their client to jail wrongfully, or to relax after a day of forcing someone who doesn't want to understand, to understand. We have spoken about the guilt and the conscience and the inability to let it rest here. It can hound a person until the only way to make it stop is to drown it.

NACDL meetings were a great way to get rid of it. You could be the person you needed to be, because the others there understood it. They got it. They lived it too. There aren't many who understand. I am not sure we do either. But we can sympathize without pity, we live it. At least we "get it." I always come back renewed after an NACDL meeting because of that fevered pitch we bring ourselves to by seeing our colleagues, sharing our stories, enjoying some downtime.
I think Bill could have used a NACDL meeting this week. Unfortunately the next one is a month away.

I am older and wiser now. I am sitting at my desk and I am still working, but in part that is about the need to mourn an old friend. In part it is also to not let his death be in vain, but to serve as a warning to the Novices and experienced alike that what we do should never become who we are. That our duty to our clients ends at the beginning of our duty to our families and our God. That we can offer those whom we fight for, only ourselves, and if we allow ourselves to become nothing, then what can we offer those that need us?

I wake every morning often tired from working so late the night before. The work doesn't stop coming. That is a good thing in that if it did, I couldn't pay the rent. Sometimes I come home just before dawn, nap, and catch the morning sun and do it all again. Other days I leave before dawn and come home again after the sun sets. When I am in trial, I can go days without noticing the sun's movements at all. i mean to exercise, but there is so much to do, that by the time I get to it, I don't have the energy to do it. It isn't healthy. So dear readers I am going to leave you now. I am going to find a treadmill and sweat for a bit. It will hide the tears that I am going to shed for my friend, Bill Bryson, and all the other friends I have lost who have fought the fight for justice. Tomorrow I will hit my knees at our local church, and pray for those guys and gals, and for the ones for whom it is not yet to late.
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