Mark Bennett wrote a post in November that has stayed in my mind ever since. You should go and read it even if you aren’t a lawyer because I think it captures the essence of the human condition: We humans are most insecure in those things which others around us think we do so well. Basically, Mark (who is taking from a post written by Keith Lee) says that having this lack of assurance in ourselves is a good thing, that because we don’t want to be discovered as frauds, we work harder to cover it up. Voila! It’s brilliant.
Today, like most days, I come to the office and the thoughts I have are “make sure I don’t screw anything up” and I know I can’t be alone in this. There are those of you out there with your schtick of suck it up, do your job, I am a tough guy gal, do it all and don’t complain because who cares anyway and now your jig is up – we know you are as full of doubt and fear as any one of us who put it out there that we are full of doubt and fear.
(The thing about a lot of lawyers though, is that they don’t discuss how insecure they are. Because who wants to hire an insecure lawyer? I don’t think anyone who has chimed in on this is talking about lawyers (or PR people or moms or whatever) who are wishy-washy or actually outwardly inept or don’t know basic procedure. They are talking about the internal mechanism that actually compels and drives you to not suck at what you do. Some call it ambition. And maybe we can re-characterize it that way. But the truth is, it’s just not wanting anyone else to know that we don’t know. So we make sure they don’t know.)
The thing is, though, that Mark says this impostor syndrome is obvious to him when dealing with successful male criminal defense lawyers. I don’t know why that is. Is it because he doesn’t want to speak for people who are not like him? Does he not speak with female criminal defense lawyers in ‘truth-telling mode’ to find out how they feel about what they do and how they conduct themselves? Or, is it because he just doesn’t know enough successful female criminal defense lawyers?
I can only speak for myself. I don’t know how he defines truth-telling, or success. Maybe it’s money or law review articles or some other such popular notion of success. Maybe it’s winning all of your cases or having a nice office and minions to do your bidding. Maybe I am not successful in that same way. I mean, I don’t think I am successful quite yet but I can tell you that successful male criminal defense lawyers don’t have the market cornered on this feeling. We clawing our way out of the bottom -high- middle of the heap female criminal defense lawyers are also looking to hide the fact that we are not successful male criminal defense lawyers and that we think people will find out. (!) So we try a little harder. We hold the client’s hand a little tighter and smile a little wider. We look up some extra cases and make sure our tabs are in order. Because if we fail it will be because we are just not up to the task and then everyone will know we are just trying to be like our male criminal defense lawyer counterparts.
And when we do win, when things go our way we do not think it was because of that extra that we did because we were lucky – this time.
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I come into the office full of good intentions. After all, there is always so much work to do. Today, I planned on writing some motions to modify conditions of release (clients want to attend social functions with family members and since they are on house arrest, they have to ask the judge for permission.) It’s not hard work but it is tedious. Then there are motions to put things off or to get things in or to do things that honestly I’d rather just not do but they must be done. There is discovery to go through and videos to watch of my clients doing things they should not be doing on video and I intend it. I do. I mean to do it all and be incredibly efficient with it all. Answer my calls, return the emails. Get. It. Done.
And then I end up leafing through old calendars and address books wondering how I will find the girl who was such a good friend of mine when I was 19 and really, who the hell is this Allison I keep mentioning? (I really have no idea.)
In between I file things in ECF and I listen to a few voice messages (mostly collect calls from the jail that are then forwarded to my cell. Yes, I take calls from clients on my cell. They text me too.)
And I have been doing a lot of unearthing, uncovering, rediscovering the how and why of ending up here in this little office with orange walls.
Those who do not know history are doomed to repeat it.
We do these pre-plea investigations. Basically probation wanders down our client’s memory lane of arrests and convictions and writes them all up for us so we can tell them how screwed they are if they are convicted after a plea or trial. I used to just ask the clients about their criminal history, but it seems that once they are at the feds there are so many arrests they simply cannot remember them all. And frequently, when they are given a written copy of their foibles, they still don’t remember. But it is there in black and white and it is what we have and we have to face it, deal with it, figure out how to make it work to our advantage (that, my friends is not a task for the timid.) Maybe – maybe If my clients could take the time to sit down with old calendars and diaries and emails and look back and say “look, I really didn’t do so well here” then maybe they wouldn’t end up standing next to me in courtroom 4B on Cherrywood Lane. Maybe they’d have a felony conviction and never be able to own a gun but would be able to sleep in their own beds for the next two decades.
Every one of us needs a pre-plea investigation before we commit our next crime. Once it’s done, it’s just too late.
I used to think it was a good thing to not be able to understand why my clients did the things they did because it was the thing that separated me from them and made me sure I would never commit such atrocities (or sell drugs.) If I didn’t ‘get it’ then I wouldn’t do it, right?
But now I get it. I get the anger and rage and frustration and desperation. I get the need for more and better and higher and this is just not enough. The there has to be an easier, faster, better, way and I will not get caught no one will find out how will they ever know. I don’t know what it is that allowed me to come here and sit in this office of the orange walls and not in a cell with an orange jumpsuit. I think I had a better sense of fear of being too risk averse to take those kinds of chances with things. But that isn’t not getting it. that isn’t not understanding. It is actually being able to fully grasp and comprehend and making a choice to not do it because I am afraid I cannot handle the consequences. And, I have just been lucky so far.
I have twin boys named Yonas and Yacob (Jonas and Jacob) They were born in 2007. In 2000 I wrote a short story about a woman who gave birth to twin boys named Jordan and Jacob. I found the story today, I haven’t seen it since I finished the journal I wrote it in. It freaked me right the fuck out. In the story, the woman, Willow (name inspired by the Robert Frost poem, ‘Maple’) doesn’t dress the boys alike for fear they will not have individual identities. She loves these boys more than she loves anyone or anything. She is a criminal defense lawyer with twin boys.
Apparently I could see my own future.
I can see my clients’ futures too, but they don’t believe me when I tell them what will happen and what is coming. I know that there is a sense of ‘this can’t really be happening to me’ when they hear how it will be, how the next years of their life will unfold. I try to keep them strong and tell them to hold on. To the young ones I say “when you get out you will be younger than me” as if this is a sense of hope. I want to ask them why they didn’t know fear or understand this is where this would lead them. Why they couldn’t just take the path that I did.
After all, now that I get it I am just like them, right?
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The truth is this blog probably wasn’t ever meant to be a legal blog. The truth is it always was just a place for me to write down how I felt, thought, sometimes what I was doing. I dipped my foot into the legal world, wanting to be accepted as a ‘real lawyer’ and a ‘real blawger’ but the truth is – the truth is not guilty has always just been a smokescreen for me. Â There is nothing in here that will make you smarter. Nothing that will give you insight into what is happening in the legal profession or how things are changing. You will not learn of the latest case or read about my analysis of it. And I’ve given up trying to keep up with the big boys whose acceptance and criticism both warmed and stung me. So, this page. This one that I write on now is nothing more or nothing less than what I make it be. It is nothing else but me. Mirriam Z. Seddiq. Not guilty.
I started this blog for me. There were just a handful of us at that time doing this blogging thing and it was just for shits and giggles. I wrote about TV shows and my move to Baltimore and trying to have babies. I wrote about the cafeteria in the basement of the old Albany County Courthouse and the people I knew. I documented the day to day drudgery and routine of being this person in this skin. Because see I love these words. I love the way they sound when I read them back to myself. I like the ups and downs and the swings and sways and then I wanted also to make you all see the things as I saw them and I tried to use these words to do it, these words that I am in love with and have always been in love with. I wanted you to love them too.
And you did.
You love them and you loved me and I wanted you to keep loving me.
But the problem is the world didn’t change because you loved these things I said. My clients were still getting screwed. The law was still so harsh and heavy and it seemed at times too much to withstand. There is nothing that prepares you for all of this. Nothing that will set you straight when you have heard so many kids cry for their dads and so many mothers weep for their children.
Does this all sound like so much more of the words I’ve already given you? But you see that’s all there is here. There isn’t anything else for me to say. I can tell you about the NSA listening to your calls and watching me type this blog post (I’m a muslim criminal defense lawyer from Kandahar, Afghanistan, if you’ve ever spoken to me on the phone you know they are listening) but do you care? I can tell you I had a client sentenced to 11.5 years for moving marijuana across the country (it was a gift from the judge, if you can believe that) I had another sentenced to 21 years (another gift) and on and on and on it goes. And there are the wins which make it possible to get through another day and there are the mothers and sisters and dads who call and email and say thank you (although that is rare).
I was asked over the break what it is that makes us do this thing that we do. I know we devoted so much of this blogging time to figuring it out. This weekend I got out my journals from college and law school. I’ve always been writing. I started my first diary in 1984 and was constant and consistent until 1995. Then the blog in 2004. And it seems that from the beginning of my life I knew that there were things that just weren’t right. That I had to be a part of fixing. I didn’t know what those things were but I felt it. I just though tit was all – unfair.
People say “life isn’t fair” and I get it. We tend to believe it is either a well thought out plan by a supreme being or a bunch of chaos and we are just lucky to avoid full on force of the meteor landing in our town. But probably it is neither or both. It is beautiful anarchy that we make sense of so we can get from place to place without stumbling over ourselves all the time.
Look, this is a post about nothing. These are just words that fill in this space and since you’ve been reading me for a while you keep doing it. And I appreciate that. I appreciate that you stop in and say hello and some of you send me a nice message saying you are happy when I write. I am happy when I write. I am happy to be able to put things down on paper and in this computer and I am happy that my words that have frequently failed me are still here and I am happy that we are still fighting this fight together and that even though I may not stun you with my keen legal mind that you come back here and sit with me for a bit.
Happy new year, dear reader. Here’s to year 10.
We are still all not guilty of something.
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I have some people in this virtual world that I am most pleased to be associated with. Some I’ve met in real life, and they’ve brought me a great deal of courage and insight as I make my way through this world. Others I interact with just through this here computer. I wish I could say that all of the folks I’ve met at school or at my jobs mean more to me than those who’ve found me through the blog or twitter, but that would just be a lie. And, while it would be a lie to say I am against lying, I want to be honest in this post (as I try to be in most) and tell you that it simply is not true. If I know you in real life, I may like you less than the person about whom I am writing today.
So, what was I saying? Oh yes, real life. Right. As I was saying. The folks I’ve come to ‘know’ (and I use the quotes simply to separate what convention calls knowing versus ‘knowing’ in the sense of gleaming what I can through conversations that take place online) are remarkable. Truly they are. They are soldiers (literally) and fighters (figuratively) artists and thinkers. Some are comedians and comediennes. It is, as I’ve said, Ernest Hemingway’s Paris for shut ins.
I’ve had the good fortune to run into some people who like to write. Writers. Not people who dabble in it the way I do, but who do it and mean it. And, I’ve been lucky enough to get to read the stuff they write. One young buck, Keith Lee, who writes a blog called Associate’s Mind, was kind enough (brave enough?) to send me an advanced copy of Â his book, The Marble and the Sculptor. Â Now, when you click on the link to his website you will see Keith isn’t a dumb shit. His blog isn’t a tumblr full of gifs and pithy quotes. It is a wellspring of information that new attorneys can and should read and incorporate into their daily lives. Keith is doing this thing that we do. And he is trying to do it well and set an example for the rest of you toddlers out there. He makes the profession proud.
I wanted to write some things about his book. And of course, I wanted to be complimentary and ooze and gush over it. I wanted to say things like “WELL WRITTEN!” “Every new lawyer needs to read this book and sleep with it under her pillow.” or whatever. But see, I’m not really a book critic. I wouldn’t even know how to begin writing a review of any such kind. I don’t even like book reviews. I mean, let me read it and figure it out for myself, I say. But here’s the thing abut this book. It made me think. It made me feel things. I wanted to sit with some of the thoughts and ideas, mull them over and pull them back out later and see how they fit with practice. Because, see, no matter what, I’ve been doing this longer. I may not do it better, but I think I’ve got some insight into which of the tidbits in the book are practical and which are just really nice ideas but, you know, fuck it.
Let me start by saying this – Rodin is my absolute favorite artist (well, him and Gaugin.) I love the Rodin museum in Philadelphia, and truly my ideal specimen of a man is the Thinker. As a girl, we had a replica in my father’s library (at that time the library was some 2×4′s on some bricks) and I would stare at it. Maybe I even had some fantasies about it but now my dad reads this blog so we will let that go. I think, though, that the idea that we are both the marble and the sculptor is spot on. In everything we do this is truth. It is not easy to cut and chisel and hack away in order to get to the thing underneath it all. It is a painful process and requires we let go of many beliefs and assumptions that we’ve held onto for so long. Not just us lawyers, but all humankind. When we think of ourselves as static instead of dynamic, we never get past just being a lump of clay.
(Oh, but notguilty, this is just part one, why is that?
Look, there’s a lot of stuff in this book. I mean, this guy is trying to tell you how to be a good lawyer, and I like to write about how I feel and think, so a review of the whole book would be very long, so just deal with it. I’ll get to the rest when I get to it.)
There is an arrogance in the book, a sense of knowing better than everyone else. But it’s a self-help book, right? I mean, who would write it but a guy with moxie who believes he has insight into things that others don’t. Â And, I get it – the idea being that young lawyers will listen to other young lawyers since they clearly won’t listen to us. There is so much in here that is worthwhile and good – for example, making sure you start building your reputation in law school; make sure you become a good writer; and realizing that this lawyer thing is really fucking hard work. So, if you think law school is stressful, you are in for a rude awakening, my friends. But then there are things that gave me pause. In one part of the book, Keith says if you aren’t writing every day, you aren’t thinking. And says that if you aren’t writing, you are just going through things in a routine way because you are lazy. I don’t know that this is true. I don’t write every day, and I certainly think more than the average bear. Maybe there are statistics or studies that support his hypothesis, but I don’t buy it. Writing is what writers do. It is not what everyone does. Â I don’t know if it is something everyone can do well, but that doesn’t mean a lot of people can’t create cohesive and rational arguments, or that they can’t be persuasive in a courtroom. The skills to write in a lawyerly way and in a writer’s way are just different. Keith has a gift. He can write, and it shows in every line of this book.
You know what else shows in every line of the book – that Keith is different from his peers. Sorry, not sorry. There is advice to be found in this book in droves. This, I think, is a book I would have written just a few years out of school. It is hopeful and powerful and tells you exactly what to do in order to be the best you can be in this profession. Â Hey old fart, this book isn’t for you. It’s not going to teach you how to fix things once you’ve been in practice for 15 years. That you need to find somewhere else. But, if you are just out of school and are just at a loss on how to get to where you’d like to be, get this book. Just realize that while Keith can lead you to the water, you still have to drink.
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