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Moving with Authority
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I am in a profession that involves a lot of risk. I am confronted with problems that don't have a clear answer. A lot of dice rolling goes on. Work out a plea, or take a case to trial? On the close calls, you can't help but wonder what would have happened if you went the other way. When I first started working as PD, I used to second-guess myself in these situations all the time.

It was always the worst when I went to trial and lost. I thought to myself, "What could I have done differently? What could I have done better? Why didn't I see pitfall A, B, or C?" I firmly believed that there was always some magical combination of evidence and trial strategy that could have won me the case... never mind if the guy was just straight-up, full-out caught and screwed.

I lost a good amount of sleep on these types of issues.

Of course, strategic legal decisions were actually some of the easiest "gray situations" to deal with. Law school doesn't prepare you for things like clients who are drug addicts or child abusers. A public defender is confronted with a whole panoply of mental illness, and he meets it in the trenches, on an intimate level. Judges, state attorneys, law enforcement... they all deal with these mental health problems, but not like us. These folks are our clients. We are the ones who live and breathe them. We meet them in our offices, and they entrust their freedom and well-being to us.

More than once, I have had clients threaten to kill themselves if X, Y, or Z didn't happen. Sometimes, despite my efforts, X, Y, and Z didn't happen. A few of them have made good on those threats and killed themselves.

Let me assure you. That is an experience that will keep you up at night.

Or did keep me up at night. It doesn't anymore.

It isn't that I've grown terribly callous or insensitive. Despite having spent two years immersed in human suffering and crisis, I still haven't disengaged that part of me that feels compassion and cares. If anything, that part has grown stronger. The reason I don't sleep over these things is because I learned a valuable lesson:

Do not take responsibility for the actions of others.

I'll try and explain.

The suicide example is a good thing, so I'll run with it. Nearly every public defender, if they stay at it long enough, will have a client that they work for kill themselves. It is never fun, and often the experience is followed by sitting around and thinking, "What if I'd picked up on this thing, or done that thing differently?" You can't help but inventory your actions, and wonder if anything you did put the person over the edge. You cut at yourself, and tell yourself, "I should have done this thing and that thing. I should have been perfect. Had all the answers. Despite my total lack of psychological training, I should have known how to pull this guy/girl off the edge."

I've stopped asking these questions. I do my best and try to treat everyone the same. I try to be courteous to everyone and do my job to the best of my ability. Ultimately, that is all I can do. I do my best for everyone I deal with, and I always try to make that better and better... These days, after these type of horrific experiences, I only ask myself one very specific question, "Based on the intel I had at the moment of the decision, did I make a decision consistent with my values and appropriate to the situation?"

Note that I don't ask, "Did I make the right decision?" No such thing. There is no perfect course of action that will give perfect, positive results every time. If you took option A, there is always option B, and you'll never know what would have happen if you'd went with B. And if there even were a magical perfect option, we don't have the capacity to utilize it as limited, flawed human beings. Perfection is always the goal, but I am at peace with the idea that I will never achieve it.

The people in my business who break are the ones that can't wrap their heads around that. Allow me the shift gears to explain.

I get my hands on my students. Through the tiny twitches in their muscle, combine with my understanding of their bodies and how they use them, I can actually feel the thought process going on in their brain. Their bodies exhibit it. I feel their body/brains thinking, "If I move this way, will it work? How about if I do this?"

One of the lessons they learn real quick, at least when they're on the business end of me, is that they have to make a choice. If they choose to do nothing, I will capitalize on that and defeat them every time. That's how the progression goes. First, they figure out that wrong choices exist. Then they start to fear wrong choices, and anguish over the risk of making one. Then, they figure out that sitting around and pondering choices gets them put on their ass. Real progress starts happening when they commit and make choices, whether they are right or wrong.

Even if it is a tactically poor choice, at least it is a choice. It has the statistical possibility of being right. What gets really pleasant is when they start making choices consistently, and the right ones happen more and more often as they learn to recognize patterns and trends. When people start to consistently make choices and understand what they are deciding, I say that they have started to develop their own authority.

I firmly believe that authority can't be given. It either emanates from a person's core or it doesn't. And it comes from their actions.

Same for law practice. Just like a good body-worker or swordsman, a good public defender constantly makes choices. So long as those choices are informed by an intelligent, compassionate core and the desire to do the best, they are right choices. And as they accrue, you get authority. Once you start getting authority, you spend a lot less sleepless nights, regardless of the outcome of your choices.

I take responsibility for my choices insofar as I ask the question from above and have authority.

Which brings me back to my big lesson. Don't take responsibility for the actions of others.

If that sounds foolish, realize that your control over another person's actions is about the equivalent to your control over the tide. So why live and die on what other people do? If you move decisively and intelligently, and your core is educated, and you did what was appropriate at the time... you've done what you can. Ultimately, if they choose to kill themselves, or get re-arrested, or whatever at that point... it is a result of their choices.

Wearing yourself out over other peoples' choices is ain't efficient. And God knows I'm busy enough...

- Ken

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One of the things we have at work, admittedly less 'life in the balance' work since it's techy crap; but we run into the same thing that you relate.. some people are afraid to make the occasional mistake.. luckily my manager knows that sometimes you gotta make some mistakes to learn, or sometimes even with all the best information before-hand, you -STILL- end up making a mistake in the long run.

As much as I hate to say it, but that Nick Cage movie 'Next' is a good example as a whole of this. And since we aren't pre-cogs, you just gotta commit to a course of action and see where it goes.

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