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September 19, 2019 Feature

Finding Fierceness

By Laura Paul

I recently had a conversation about fierceness with a friend of mine. We are both female criminal defense lawyers, and we were lamenting the overemphasis on “problem solving” in our profession—not that compromise and negotiating aren’t useful, and not that we don’t do them all the time. But they aren’t always the best for clients, and they’re hardly ever as much fun as a spectacular death-by-a-thousand-cuts cross-exam or the definitive sound of a “not guilty” ringing from the jury box. After all, it is good to just win.

As I was evolving from a baby lawyer into a seasoned one, I honed my trial skills, worked my cases, and became a good negotiator. But I never thought of myself as fierce, and I always suspected that people could sense my inner soft core.

That is, until Dawn’s case. I had been practicing a few years, so I was starting to feel competent, but not confident. Dawn had been arrested a few days earlier, just seconds after selling a significant amount of meth to an undercover cop. She was making her initial appearance before a judge we called “Iron Mike.” She had a prior drug felony and faced a mandatory minimum 20-year sentence. Things looked bleak.

By that time in my career, I wasn’t afraid of pressing the long shot anymore, and I asked for a bond hearing. I found a rehab bed for Dawn and laid out all the reasons why she should be out pending trial. The prosecutor stood up and said, in his manly, authoritative twang, “She’s got a prior drug felony, judge. Doesn’t matter if she gets out. She’s goin’ to prison for at least 20 years.”

I had heard that same hopeless song of failure for too long. With a clap of my hand on counsel table, I stood back up to be heard. My scalp tingled, and I could feel my voice rising in my chest. I didn’t wait for an invitation because the moment was mine.

“Your Honor, it matters a very great deal if she is out, and everyone in this courtroom, including the prosecutor, knows it. All she needs is a chance to prove herself.”

I did not sit down. Something about the certainty that came out of me changed the atmosphere in that courtroom, and Iron Mike said yes.

Then Dawn had to wait it out, letting the busy docket clear up until it finally got to her, almost two years later. She stayed clean. She got a job. She passed every drug screen. She never missed an AA meeting. She stayed positive, even with 20 years hanging over her head. It paid off: The prosecutor offered a lesser offense, and Iron Mike miraculously gave her probation. Dawn wept as we walked out of the courtroom together.

A few years later, Dawn called me. She was still doing great, and she said she couldn’t have made it without me. I declined the praise; I had just borrowed some time for her, after all. But it wasn’t that, she told me. It was that bond hearing, when I stood up for her, when I publicly and loudly believed in her. It made her believe in herself.

That hearing was the first moment I thought of myself as a fierce lawyer. Being able to stand up for someone without a voice is why many of us became lawyers. So many of us are passionate about serving the greater good, whether it’s fighting for someone to have a second chance, or for a child at the border, or for someone to be able to march or work or pray or vote.

But being adversarial isn’t something that is always valued in women. I had to learn how to be fierce—not only by learning my craft, but also by trusting myself and my instincts enough to stand up when the moment requires it.

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By Laura Paul

Laura Paul is a deputy federal public defender in the Capital Habeas Unit in the Central District of California. She started her career as a solo criminal defense attorney in Indiana.