When you’re a kid dreaming of being a lawyer someday, you don’t dream of getting guilty people off. You dream about protecting the innocent, about fighting for what’s right, about standing up for the little guy, about safeguarding the very constitutional rights that underpin our liberty. For me, I dreamt of being some combination of Henry Fonda in 12 Angry Men, of the character Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird, and of Alan Dershowitz in Reversal of Fortune.
I watched Reversal of Fortune on TV recently. If you haven’t seen it, you really ought to – Jeremy Irons is chilling as Claus Von Bulow and Ron Silver as Alan Dershowitz is fantastic. One scene made me want to write this post; it’s when Dershowitz’s student is arguing with him about why he would be willing to defend who she considers to be a guilty scumbag. It’s a perfect explanation of why I do what I do. Why defend the guilty? How can I sleep at night knowing I’ve helped to free guilty people? He explains,
“…everyone deserves a defense. So the system is there for the innocent person falsely accused. Okay, say it’s you, okay? You decide you’re gonna get a divorce, you’re going to divorce your husband. A week later you’re accused of child abuse…Suddenly you’re alone and it’s a disaster. Everyone thinks that you are guilty. Even the mailman is looking at you a little funny. There’s only one person who can help you. There’s only one person you can trust, your lawyer…I think it’s a little more complicated than your simple moral superiority, hmm?”
It’s a great scene. It’s hard to translate into writing, but it really makes you understand what’s so important and exciting about being a defense attorney. Being that one person your clients can count on, that they can trust. Being there for them when no one else is. It’s important work and that far outweighs any repulsion of representing someone you think is guilty, even of something awful.