Sunday, April 24, 2011

Staying grounded amid the chaos

A reader posted a comment after I'd mentioned one of the humorous moments in my recent murder trial. I'm sure you read it, of course you did, but he/she asked (in part):

... the work of an ADA ... can be almost unrelentingly sad - you constantly confront the "darker side" of the community in question. Given that, how does you and your colleagues stay grounded? Are you able to "switch off" when you go home at night/for the weekend, or take a vacation? Or are your minds always on felonies no matter what?

I don't get paid enough to worry about crime in my spare time. I make a third of what my friends at law firms make so they can take their work home with them, not me.

Okay, seriously, it's a good question and one I get asked from time to time. I am almost always able to switch off at night and on weekends. I think one reason is that the cases themselves don't last all that long, and so I don't have time to get buried in them so deeply that I can't escape. Of course, my recent cold case was an exception and I spent many sleepless nights worrying about that one. But with the volume of cases we have (120-150 at any one time) there's just no time to become overly attached to any one case.

I also think that the cases we deal with have facets other than grimness that temper the likelihood they will haunt us on weekends. In other words, not many show a truly bad side to human nature. A lot of bad things happen, of course, but they are not because some evil mastermind is trolling the land of the innocents looking to drain them of their blood and entrails. But a bar fight that results in a serious injury makes me shake my head at stupidity (and excessive drinking) rather than worry about the dark side of human nature. I think you'll find that a lot of murders are anger-based, rather than evil-based, too, so even the most extreme crimes don't keep me up at night.

I'll add right now that I don't deal with child abuse cases. Those, I am fairly sure, would give me greater pause and be harder to shake off come five o'clock.

I think, being subjected to an endless flow of felonies, we also get relief from knowing that in many cases we're trying to help the perpetrator as well as punish. We suggest treatment programs, restitution, and pretrial diversion programs. Undoing bad acts gives us less to worry about, right?

We also rely on each other. We can tell pretty easily when the stress is mounting in a colleague, and we do what we can to help. A great recent example is that cold case. I was working on it full-time and basically neglecting my other cases, even though we had a regular docket. Well, without a word, not a single complaint, my colleagues Jackie Wood, Geoffrey Puryear, and Steve Brand took up the slack and handled all of my cases in docket. They just stepped up and made my life a thousand times easier. Without them taking that load, I would have been much less prepared than I was at trial.

I probably wouldn't do the same for them, of course, but that's by the by.

So, all in all I'd answer this by saying that while our cases can be sad, bloody, painful, and disheartening, there's no evil lurking in most of them to follow us home at night or stalk us on weekends. Maybe we're more cynical than your average lawyer, perhaps we laugh at stuff we shouldn't (I wrote an anecdote in this post that I subsequently deleted because, well, I wasn't sure how it would come across), but mostly we are like other professionals -- we work hard during the day and go home to our families feeling good about our day, rather than bad.


  1. In Tyler, a prosecutor was assigned to handle CPS cases. It was one legal nightmare involving children after another. Night time nightmares began as well. After 4 years, she took a job as a teacher in a private school and has not looked back.

  2. Thanks for your thoughts, DAC. What you say makes a lot of sense. I suppose that part of the reason for my musing on this topic relates to George's comment. It will probably be 2-3 years after I begin as an ADA (which itself won't be for a couple months) before I have to make decisions about specialization. However, I'm thinking at the outset that I might want to specialize in sexual assault, and even child sexual assault cases, when the time comes. It's obviously very important work, but I think it would make it difficult to switch off when not at work. I'm thinking of trying to volunteer for a non-profit that works with DV and/or sexual assault survivors over the next year or two, and to see how well I handle that, before considering trying to specialize in a sex-related field as a prosecutor.

    With that said, I'm glad to hear your perspective that working on most forms of violent crime can be quite emotionally feasible, despite the challenges. In my recent job search, I noticed during my interviews with ADAs/AUSAs that there was a constant stream of banter between the prosecutors - far more than I've encountered working in civil litigation. I found it refreshing, and it fits well with your remarks about the need for humor.

    - New ADA


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