From the Multnomah Lawyer: Earning Trust Through Relationships

I had only been a juvenile delinquency attorney for a month before my first trial was set, but I didn’t need a ton of experience to recognize that the facts were not on my client’s side. The District Attorney filed Robbery in the Third Degree, Assault in the Fourth Degree and Criminal Mischief in the Third Degree charges - with various forms of evidence to support them. I negotiated a potential plea deal with the DA that would avoid a felony charge on my client’s (Robert, a 15-year-old, name changed) record, but Robert was unwilling to take the plea. Robert informed me later that he and the victim had a long-running dispute, one which made him too stubborn to admit any guilt at all. So, counter to my advice, we went to trial. Although I didn’t think it was the best course of action given the facts, I did the best I could to prepare. Together, Robert and I crafted a trial strategy and met several times to go over our approach. I met with his family several times and learned more about Robert’s goals and aspirations. Robert shared the nature of his dispute with the victim and although irrelevant to the case, it did help me understand a bit more about Robert as a person. Over the course of the trial, we called witnesses and cross-examined others, made objections, and filed motions. During the proceedings, Robert’s mother sat stoically in the back of the courtroom as he remained remarkably cool. When the judge asked him to rise so she could deliver the disposition, I felt Robert’s tension and anxiety alongside my own. I placed my hand on his shoulder and we both lowered our heads slightly when she found him within the jurisdiction of the court (guilty).

Robert surprised me with what he did next. I expected him to yell or cry - isn’t that what I would have done had I been in his shoes? Wasn’t he angry? Wasn’t he sad? Instead, he leaned over to me, shook my hand and softly said, ‘I appreciate you doing everything you could. Thank you.’ He was angry. He was sad. But he was also grateful.

The question is: what was he grateful for? We didn’t get the outcome we wanted that day, so it clearly had to be something else.

During the disposition hearing, all of the things I learned about Robert and his family while spending time with them suddenly became extremely relevant. Because I could clearly communicate Robert’s needs, the judge was able to craft a creative disposition plan that felt like a positive next step for Robert and his family. 

Fast forward 11 years to the month and I’m sitting with Trei, a young man at MacLaren Youth Correctional Facility. I am no longer a juvenile delinquency attorney, but still work with justice-involved youth. Trei has been locked up for over seven years. It is immediately apparent that he sees connections in the world that most miss and I am disheartened that society has not provided adequate recognition for his wisdom. I don’t ask him what he did to get sent to MacLaren because that is not important. Besides, we both know a quick internet search would provide that information if that’s what I’m really seeking. Instead, we share experiences. He spent time as a youth in Northeast Portland near Woodlawn Park, an area that I know well. Trei, there as a young man of color in the 2000s and 2010s, and I, there as a young man of color in the 1980s and 1990s. Trei’s father died when he was a small child, whereas mine was around to make sure I had positive activities for growth and mentors nearby who kept negative influences from distracting me. Both of our mothers worked tirelessly throughout the week to provide for our families; mine made enough in her job that I didn’t have to work to take care of younger siblings like Trei did. We talk about the systemic traps that exist for young people of color - like the way education disproportionately sorts out kids of color and discards many into the school-to-prison pipeline. Trei never felt connected to teachers. I learned school can be fun if your basic needs are already met.

Trei refuses to make any excuses for the decisions he’s made in his life and he is wholly uninterested in soliciting any form of pity.

But during our conversation, he makes one thing very clear about his experiences with the legal system – he trusted no one in his case. Not the judge, not jurors, not even his own attorney. As a former public defender, his distrust of his attorney struck me most. Trei recounts how he felt the weight of the criminal justice system on his shoulders and how he was unsure if his attorney was actually on his side, or if his attorney was just a cog in a machine systematically designed to grind up young boys of color. In turn, I recall that one of the hardest aspects of being a public defender is finding the time to connect and communicate with clients. He’s still upset about how quickly the process moved without him feeling like he got to tell his story. I recall having to actively learn how to listen for more than just the facts of the case, but for the history and emotion of the human being sitting in the chair across from me. He shares how impossible it is for him to trust people he does not have a relationship with. I recall dreadful feelings of inadequacy trying to represent people I did not know very well.

How can we, as attorneys, adequately represent people when we haven’t done enough to earn their trust? The attorney-client relationship is incredibly complex in its dynamics and disproportionate in its allocation of power often leaving clients without clarity in the legal process. For those like Trei who have been failed by multiple institutions throughout life, what should attorneys do to ensure that those clients can at least trust those representing them? James Baldwin famously stated, “I love America more than any other country in this world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.” It is in that spirit that attorneys must perpetually criticize legal systems in which we work, especially when working with populations marginalized by those same systems. Our criticism should lead us to action that improves legal systems and to action that improves advocacy for individual clients. And, most importantly, we should be able to demonstrate to each of our clients all of these improvements.

It is important to invest in the attorney-client relationship in ways that provide opportunities to build trust with clients. Our clients must often be vulnerable when sharing their stories and we should be well-versed in understanding the historical contexts that give additional meaning to those stories. When representing clients of color, it is even more imperative that we consider the ways in which race can shape those clients’ experiences. It takes significant self-reflection and continued education to better understand the historical contexts that we don’t understand naturally from experience. But when we make that extra effort, our idea of a good outcome will parallel our client’s idea of a good outcome.

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