Beyond Lawyering: How Holistic Representation Makes for Good Policy, Better Lawyers, and More Satisfied Clients

By Robin Steinberg.

Lisa looked older than she was–her face and body aged too quickly by a childhood marked by abandonment, sexual abuse, and betrayal. Her teenage years spent as a prostitute; her adulthood ruled by an uncontrollable heroin addiction.

I met Lisa when I was a young public defender in New York City in the mid-1980s. I liked her instantly; her sharp tongue, quick wit, and confrontational style with any authority figure won me over. Lisa was charged with robbing her “john” in a midtown hotel room by hitting him over the head with a champagne bottle, tying his legs and feet behind his back, and leaving him naked, bleeding, and helpless as she unloaded his wallet into her purse. It turned out that her immobilized customer tried to get her “services” for free and refused to pay her; Lisa was having none of that. Unfortunately, as she left the hotel room, she walked directly into hotel security guards, who arrested her.

Lisa was charged with robbery and possession of a weapon. The thirteen months during which I represented Lisa gave us ample time to share lunch, talk about her case, and stay in regular contact as we prepared for her trial. But it was not until two days before the trial that I began to really understand the life this young woman was living. Concerned that she would show up for her trial high on heroin or simply fail to show up on time, I questioned her about where she would be staying and how I could contact her. At that moment it became clear that I did not really know Lisa at all. She had no “home,” her heroin habit was raging, and she had no idea how to present herself to the jury who would be deciding her fate. So, I did what only a young public defender would do–I brought her home to my fifteen-by-eighteen-foot studio apartment in Greenwich Village, where I could keep a watchful eye over her during the impending week-long trial.

I litigated the case like it was my only one–trying to block out the eighty other clients I had waiting for my attention. And even though the jury took several days to make its decision, in the end, they convicted Lisa of the robbery, and she was sentenced to one and one-half to four years. I cried as they led Lisa away in handcuffs.

I saw Lisa once again, as she was being released from prison after serving almost a year. Eventually, the appellate court reversed her conviction and set her free. She walked through the cell gates, threw her arms around me, and thanked me for not forgetting her. As she walked down the steps into the New York City subway system–a free woman–she turned, smiled, and gave a little wave goodbye. And with that, she was gone.

According to traditional standards of public defense, I did a good job. Indeed, Lisa received a high quality legal defense in her criminal case: I raised all appropriate challenges to the police conduct, challenged the prosecution to prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt, and litigated her case effectively, zealously, and without compromise. I appealed her case and eventually won her freedom.

So why does Lisa still haunt me almost two decades later?

Because while I addressed the needs of her criminal case effectively, I did nothing to change her life—to address, in other words, her human needs. Those needs, left unaddressed, would eventually drive her back into the criminal justice system and into that same prison cell from which she narrowly escaped the first time. Looking back, what Lisa needed was an advocate who could look beyond her criminal case, to her drug addiction, to her homelessness, and to her psychological needs (which stemmed from years of trauma and abuse). Lisa needed an advocate who regarded her as a “whole client,” rather than as a case.