Lawyers Journal

The 'emotional trials' of female criminal defense lawyers


About the book … Nonfiction

Title: Emotional Trials: The Moral Dilemmas of Women Criminal Defense Attorneys

Author: Cynthia Siemsen

Description: A sociological examination of the work lives of women criminal defense attorneys

Publisher: Northeastern
University Press

Publication Date: April 1, 2004

Pages: 240

"Justice is just that: just us."
These words and sentiments are reiterated by many of the attorneys who were interviewed for the new book "Emotional Trials."

The author of "Emotional Trials," Cynthia Siemsen, is not an attorney, but an assistant professor of sociology at California State University who for several years worked as a legal secretary at a public defender's office.

The book "Emotional Trials" looks at how women criminal defense attorneys handle the emotional stress that may arise as a result of representing and working closely with criminal defendants. The crimes committed are often heinous in general, but in particular they sometimes involve rape or other violent acts against women.

Siemsen's book asks the question, "What is the emotional toll paid by women defense attorneys?"

The author's interest in the subject matter came as a result of an experience in that office.

For instance, one of the attorneys in the office was representing a father who had plunged his young child's hands into boiling water. The emergency room doctor who treated the child's burns was subpoenaed to testify at the trial. The doctor wrote a letter to the defense attorney asking how he could represent such a monster. Siemsen typed the letter responding to the doctor.

"The response I typed was an eloquent statement of the duty of the criminal defense attorney to defend even the monsters in our society, a duty that the attorney found all the more difficult, since he had three small children at home," Siemsen wrote. "The attorney said the responsibility of a criminal defense attorney is as sacred as the healing of the child's hands. My memory of the letter is as vivid as if I typed it yesterday."

After Siemsen became a mother, she found it more difficult to deal with some of the cases involving children and often wondered how the women criminal defense attorneys in her office could defend rapists. She eventually left the job and pursued her doctorate in sociology. This book began as her thesis.

The book consists of several case studies and further sociological analysis. For the majority of the book the focus is on Siemsen's interviews with several women criminal defense attorneys over a two-year period. All of the attorneys practice in California, so March 7, 1994, was a meaningful date for them. That was the day that Governor Pete Wilson signed California's version of the three strikes law. California attorneys often have to deliver very bad news to second and third strikers.

One attorney highlights the similarities between her job and that of medical oncology.

"I view myself in a lot of ways as a doctor, in the sense that I'm presenting options to people who lots of times don't have very good options," said the attorney, whose real name is not given in the book. "And so we talk about what's the best way to go. 'Should we try your case? Should you settle your case? If you settle your case, you'll get out some day.' I've had conversations with people where I've had to explain, you'd better take life without the possibility of parole. Lawyers aren't comfortable having those conversations, and a lot of doctors aren't either. But sensitive lawyers and sensitive doctors can learn how to do that in a compassionate way.

"I learned a lot from [my oncologist friend] about how to talk to people about those kinds of things. People come to an acceptance of their situation at different times, and some people never accept it. Some people want no information, and some people want lots of information. Some people act out as a way to try to control what's a horrible situation for them, and some become completely passive and give up. Seeing the similarities between the two helps me step back when [clients] get angry at me. You know if you're a doctor treating a patient who's been given serious news, and they get angry with you, if you're any kind of professional at all, you can step back and say, 'This is their reaction to the disease and the messenger; I did not give this person cancer.' Somehow as public defenders we have a hard time with that. We get ourselves involved with the message and the news, and they involve us in it. Clients treat lawyers really bad. And I really feel that over time I've become very effective at learning to work with people in a compassionate way so that I can still have a relationship with them when they're angry. But that takes a lot of time to get to that point."

Siemsen separates the case studies into different chapters depending upon how long the attorneys have been practicing. She found similarities in ideologies of these women depending upon their experiences. Unlike the younger attorneys, the mid-career women defenders attended law school in the early 1980s and were in their early 40s. These women all went through some sort of an "identity transformation" after learning that they could "survive" their careers. After learning this lesson, they reached a "new plateau."

Also the author found at the beginning of her research that the attorneys did not have the conflicts she assumed they would have.

Most of the women defense attorneys hated the question posed to them by Siemsen regarding how they could defend rapists. In fact, many were quite put out by the question and the author had to change the way she approached the issue.

Siemsen learned that asking the question "how can a woman defend a rapist" misses the point. That type of question irritated the defenders resulting in an extremely limited exchange of information.

For example, Siemsen stated "How about the crime? [Have you ever struggled defending] a particular type of crime because you're a woman?"

The answer by one lawyer was "no."

Siemsen then asked, "Okay, do you consider yourself a feminist?"

She replied, "Yes."

Siemsen asked, "And do you think that when a person, a generic person, becomes a public defender they need somehow to adopt a view that isn't consistent with being a feminist?"

The lawyer replied, "No."

The exchange continued with not much more than one word answers.

The common thread to the interviews was that all the defense attorneys believed in the fundamental right to fairness no matter the crimes alleged against the defendants.

The author spends a fair amount of time discussing the methodology of her research and how she found her subjects. Because of limited time and the way that she found people to interview, most of the women defense attorneys were white, so she acknowledges the lack of diversity. In order to present a different view, "Emotional Trials" contains an appendix where she interviewed men of color prosecutors.

Again, the author found that the conflicts were different from what she expected. Most of the prosecutors interviewed were African-American. One of the attorneys discussed his views on prosecuting other African-Americans.

"My job is to protect the people," he said. "For the most part, when an African American commits a crime, it is against another African American. When a Hispanic person commits a crime, it is against another Hispanic. When a Vietnamese person commits a crime, it is against another Vietnamese. The minorities out there are committing crimes against other minorities. I guess they think the cops are going to come after them more severely or the punishment will be more harsh if they go out and attack the elderly white guy. People do it against their own for some reason. So my going in on the defense side, to protect this African American who is out there committing crimes and make sure that he gets some sort of benefit from me representing him … I look at it like I am just sending him back on the street to victimize more African Americans. A small percentage of people are victimizing individuals, and putting this person back out on the street would just send him back to rob my grandmother again, because that is who he is going to pick."

"Emotional Trials" is written from a sociological perspective rather than a legal perspective and there is often a lot of summarizing and repetition. Overall the book presents some very interesting issues that aren't often discussed.

Lisa C. Johnson may be reached at [e-mail LisaCJohnson].

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