Perhaps one of the first things people think when considering what a public defender does for a living is: “how can they defend guilty people?” Public defenders deal with criminal misdemeanor and felony cases, and often have hundreds of open cases at a time. These cases range from first degree murder to petty theft, and everywhere in between.
My first experience with the Minnehaha County Public Defenders Office was in 2015 when I was finishing my undergraduate degree. I was not at the Public Defenders Office for a criminal matter, but rather a learning experience – and what a learning experience it was. The few months I spent interning at the Public Defenders Office reinforced my decision to attend law school and also opened my eyes to a world I never knew existed. Before working at the Public Defenders Office, I never realized the extent of the disproportionate minority representation in jail and in prison, and I never knew about the sheer number of homeless individuals in Sioux Falls.
During my first internship experience at the Public Defenders Office, I heard a story from an attorney about a fellow attorney who had been assaulted by a client while in an interview room inside the Minnehaha County Courthouse. While rightfully disturbed by what I had heard, I didn’t think much of it at the time. Every client I met with was nothing but respectful and kind to me, and I never felt unsafe with a client. The story I heard about the attorney who had been assaulted by a client, however, has always been in the back of my mind.
This summer, I returned to the Public Defenders Office as a legal intern after finishing my first year of law school. My job was to conduct legal research for my assigned attorneys, watch police videos, organize case files, write briefs, and watch court proceedings. On my first day of work, I picked an office that would be mine for the duration of the summer. It was an office facing the front desk on the main floor of the Public Defenders Office, where the legal office assistants work. This area is where clients check in for appointments with their attorney and where calls come into the office.
Shortly after my summer of work started, I noticed a few things. One – people of all walks of life are in need of a public defender, and two – people who come into the Public Defenders Office are not usually happy about it. My first experience with an especially unhappy client involved a client repeatedly slamming his fists on the front counter and demanding to see his attorney immediately. This eventually became a weekly occurrence, but I always noticed that clients were typically calm and in a different state of mind when they left the office. These observations got me thinking about what it truly means to be a public defender in a city like Sioux Falls which is experiencing high rate of growth in population.
My interest piqued, I spoke with Traci Smith, J.D., one of the head attorneys at the Minnehaha County Public Defenders Office. I inquired as to whether she has ever felt unsafe with a client, as well as ways to handle a situation involving an upset and possibly violent client. She responded that she has never felt unsafe with a client – an answer which surprised me, given what I had seen from clients while sitting in my office.
When I asked how she handled situations where a client was upset or hostile, Traci responded that as a public defender, and as an attorney in general, it is important to truly listen to people. Even if you are unable to help, just listen. Traci emphasized that often, a client may be frustrated because of the legal or personal situation they are in, and not at their attorney specifically. Sometimes simply talking to someone may be enough to ease any anxiety or anger a client is feeling, and public defenders are zealous advocates for their clients. Traci expressed how important it is to remain calm when a client is emotional, and that empathy is everything.
The strategic placement of office furniture can also create an additional element of safety to an inherently private space. Placing a desk close to a door in an office room can be an effective method to ensure an easy exit if the need arises. This, along with listening to a client when they need it, can do much to calm down someone who came into the office angry.
Empathy is an important quality in a legal world swarming with adversary and hostility. Clients expect and require that their attorney to be a zealous advocate for them, even when society and the justice system may be against them. Sometimes all a client needs is for their attorney to listen to them and empathize with them as best as possible instead of giving legal advice. Sometimes all a client really needs is the patient ear of their public defender.