It's all so simple in law school: Proven facts are supposed to yield predictable consequences. Learn the fact patterns that constitute causes of actions and crimes. Master the evidence code. Ace procedure. Then on to fame and fortune as a trial lawyer.

They forget to teach the part about triage. You learn that on the fly. You learn, or you don't survive, how to marshal the energy you have to give.

The week is but half over and I am wrung out. It started with a call Monday. A client had tried to commit suicide, and was recovering. His mother was calm on the phone. But I was hovering over the gates of Hell. A client's death on my watch hurts. I'm still mourning the loss of a man last Fall.

In a cold, clinical sort of way, I understood the attempted suicide. It was a protest against the irrationality of the law. The man stood accused of crimes on which I will not comment. But the consequences, if convicted, will destroy him. I understand well the instinct to deny the state its pound of flesh. Call it the ultimate version of "You can't fire me, I quit."

But I've spent hours with this client. I know him to be gentle, if confused. I've delivered news at which surgeons become adept: There's a tumor here. I will operate, but you may well be crippled for life. I saw fear transformed to terror. Try as I might, I could not reach him. Killing himself as an act of protest? Fine. But it hurts.

The mother and I trade phone calls to assess her son's will to live.

Come Tuesday a new client in crisis. This one is a police officer. I hear the familiar sound of a life slipping away. Gun eating is a term only those unaccustomed the cruel finality of police work do not know. "Look," I tell the man. "Don't eat your gun. You do it, I am coming to Hell to get you."

He promises he will not. And I am relieved. Yet I am also ashamed. After many years of this work there really seems to be nothing I can say that I have not said before. Yet this is the client's first such crisis. I need to be more for him, creative, incisive, caring, capable of miracles. At least that is the expectation I bring to the fear of seeing a closed casket again.

They did not teach me about this in law school.

Another client wants suddenly to appear at a court to protest a ruling. Such visits do not end well. How do I cut through that rage so as to make room for reason to take root? I court him on the phone. There is no hope, I relay. Bad things have been done in the name of the law. Yes, I believe the result wrong, heartless, cynical, but the law has spoken. I am the handmaiden of death this week.

These dramas consume the evening hours. By day, I object, cajole, argue and connive in the shadow of the law. It seems each hallway is filled with hands held out in need. Just now, I'm needing a space to hide.

I check the phone messages. A prosecutor calls. He wants sentencing in a case continued. He is young, and he thinks it is play to call a man scum and seek to lock him away forever. Earlier this week, he spoke harsh words about my client in a judge's chambers. I walked out, telling the judge I was not going to sit by and listen to a minister of justice behave like a punk.

I've wounded this young man, apparently. He calls to ask a favor and cannot resist taunting me over his recent trial win. I hang up the phone without listening to all he had to say. He may learn, someday, that the law is not a game. Lives hang in the balance, and when I lose one I mourn.

Is this the same prosecutor who conceded that the key evidence against my client was not likely to be admissible when jury selection began before a male jurist? He was hang dog then. But when the judge fell ill during jury selection, the prosecutor's mood brightened. He assumed, correctly, that the new judge, a woman, would admit the evidence of a prior act of violence. Cases aren't suppose to turn on who is wearing the robe, but they do. I am eager to take the appeal in this case and try the case again. I sit and I fume. But I don't not have time for anger. Tomorrow is another hearing, and next week a new jury and a new trial awaits.

The law did not teach me about triage. That I continue to learn, one heart ache at a time. Being alive to the law's possibilities is not all roses. They do not teach that in law school. That I learn again each day. I wish I could learn the lesson but once and be spared the eternal review. But the law is not like that.

Comments: (2)

  • Geesh! Rough week. I feel your pain. I wonder if E...
    Geesh! Rough week. I feel your pain. I wonder if Elena Kagan is reading this blog? I already know the answer. I forwarded the story below to some of the WaPo writers today. Something has got to give!?!
    Posted on May 12, 2010 at 10:49 am by William Doriss
  • What? Feelings, in the law? Pishaw Mr. Pattis. Ho...
    What? Feelings, in the law? Pishaw Mr. Pattis. How trite that you actually give a shit.
    Posted on May 12, 2010 at 10:54 am by Mirriam Seddiq

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