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One Vile Task After Another

Al Swearengen comments on life.
Al Swearengen comments on life.

This is a post about hope.

In one particularly great scene in the greatest series Deadwood of the prestige television era, Al Swearengen, the saloon owner and whoremonger, comments on life in his inimitable way. Caution: Foul language ahead.

Al says something to the effect that life is just one vile [expletive] task after another. For Al, who is a murderer, and drug trafficker, a pimp, among other things, life truly does consist of vile tasks.

For those of us better inclined, life does have its vile, or at the very least, unpleasant tasks. These aren’t tasks that we can shirk.

For instance, as a defense attorney, every day I have to convey unwanted news. And even though I have my fair share of successes, successes in the criminal defense world often have their own unpleasant components. Even where I’ve had clients acquitted by a jury, the outcome is bittersweet because even though justice may have been done, the client waited often years for the outcome.

Where am I going with this?

The vileness of the task is in the eye of the beholder. I recently got a very great outcome in a case. Leaving the federal courtroom with a 6 month sentence for my client who was originally facing a mandatory minimum of five years, I was nearly bouncing off the walls with excitement.

But my client was not nearly as thrilled. My client was thinking about “doing” six months of time in prison.

This brings me to this thought:

I’m coming to believe that in addition to the good legal work and fight and orneriness and trial skills, so much of what makes a good lawyer is the ability (like a doctor) to bring some sort of comfort to a client in small and big cases as they face their judgment.

In small cases, it’s like bad flu. In low and mid level felonies, it’s like a treatable form of cancer.

In very serious cases (serious federal cases and murders), it’s like trying to be with your client as they confront that they are effectively going to get a death sentence (not capital punishment, but the removal from life into a purgatorial prison for most or all of the rest of their lives). And I literally watch the death throes, which in the legal context are the horror (expressed by angry complaints, blame-shifting, anxiety) by some clients who are having trouble facing the reality of what’s coming.

And while I can’t say I’ve fully got control of my demeanor, at this point I understand what’s going on and try to “guide” or “comfort the patient” on the way to sentencing. And I sometimes ask for forgiveness from my clients, my loved ones, for my reaction to what is in the end a difficult experience.

Don’t cry for me. I am exceedingly fortunate to be able to do the work I do. I live a good – by any standards in the history of humans – and very comfortable existence. And even in the context of the criminal justice system, with public servants who do good work, I’m fortunate.

But this is a particular experience of defense counsel, analogous being a doctor. It’s one “vile” task after another, comforted by the fact That, in the end, All Shall be Saved.

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