Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Ten Long Years (Part 2)

As I said a couple of weeks ago, this month marks a pair of milestones for me. One was the 10-year anniversary of my first autocross. The other, today, is the 10-year anniversary of my admission to practice law in the State of West Virginia. This trip down memory lane should be a bit shorter than the last one, mostly due to the fact that I don't have any pictures to joggle my mind.

When I was in law school (and for a while before, I suppose), I picture myself as a litigator, a trial lawyer. Most people in law school do, at some point, at least. I took part in mock trial competitions and felt good doing it. I could see myself doing this "for real" - getting paid for it, in other words - once I got out of school and passed the bar. I didn't know quite how I wanted to do it, but criminal law and generally helping the downtrodden appealed to me.

A funny thing happened on the way to me becoming the next Gerry Spence or Clarence Darrow - I couldn't get a job doing trial work! My first interview out of school (before I even took the bar exam) was with a county public defender office outside of Charleston. It was only a 3-person office (the Defender and two assistants), so when the second assistant left the office, the Defender couldn't hire on a complete newb with no actual license to practice yet. Had I gotten that job, I wonder where I'd be now.

Instead, I wound up taking a job with legal aid in Beckley, down in the southern coal fields. Legal aid is like the civil counterpart to the public defender, representing low-income people in domestic cases, landlord-tenant disputes, that sort of thing. I was hired on as the domestic violence staff attorney under a Department of Justice grant. That mean that I represented battered women (and the odd man), usually in domestic violence and divorce/child custody proceedings.

Trial work it was not. Most of my court appearances were in domestic violence hearings, where the respondent (a.k.a., the abusive husband/boyfriend/baby daddy) wasn't represented by counsel and trotted out some half-baked "defense" (i.e., "the bitch deserved it"). There were final divorce hearings, too, but in cases without kids there simply wasn't much of anything to argue about. I had one, honest to goodness flat out contested divorce hearing (about child custody), which I happened to win.

The work I did at legal aid, while important and (I like to think) of great impact in the lives of those who needed our services, was soul crushing. Nothing brings out the spirit of idiocy in human beings like a divorce. Virulent arguments break out over the most mundane of things, like who gets the commemorative Smurf glasses (I shit you not).

There had to be something more engaging out there. After a year in Beckley, I made a shift of scene and job. I moved back to Charleston and went to work for the Kanawha County Public Defender office in their appellate division.

I had always liked writing and researching, the prime appellate skills. Dates back to my undergraduate history education, I imagine. But I never figured I could focus on appellate work outside of the kind of big civil firm that I didn't really want to work for. The opportunity to do it in a PD office, and scratch my criminal law itch to boot, was too good to pass up.

That being said, appellate criminal work in West Virginia can be frustrating. There is no intermediate appellate court in West Virginia and the Supreme Court has discretionary jurisdiction, so nobody convicted of a crime in this state (even of murder) is entitled to a review of their case. You've got to convince the Supreme Court to take the case before you brief it on the merits. As a result, very few cases get reviewed. In the two years I was with the KCPD office, I didn't have any cases accepted for review and only had one chance to pitch a case to the court in person.

Aside from the frustrating appeals, I also worked on state habeas corpus proceedings. I learned, fairly early on, that I great preferred appeals to habeas cases. Appeals have a set record, a fixed universe of facts from which one can draw when writing a brief. Habeas cases, by contrast, allow for supplementation of the record and often require a ground-up review of the case, tracking down witnesses, etc. In other words, they involve the kind of legwork that the original trial did. And I figured out that I didn't really care for that type of stuff.

I was generally happy with that gig, but nonetheless I kept my eyes open for something bigger and better. I found it when the Federal Public Defender in Charleston had a position open for what is known, in AO lingo, as a "Legal Research and Writing Specialist." Sounded interesting, so I sent them a resume and had an interview. Long story short, I thought that job would suit my skill set a bit better, so I switched the state courts for the federal courts.

That was seven years ago (next month) and I've been there ever since. My business cards say "Appellate Counsel" instead of that long-winded job title, which is a pretty fair summary of what I do. I get to sit in my office all day, digging through transcripts, hunting the corners of the Federal Reporters for case law, and keeping abreast of the latest and greatest pronouncements of the Supreme Court.

Some lawyers, even the lawyer I wanted to be in law school, who think that sounds like hell, rather than heaven. It works for me, though. So I think I'll keep at it for a bit longer. Who knows where I'll be in another decade?

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