Bar News - September 21, 2016
Opinion: From Public to Private Law Practice, Human Element Remains the Draw
By: Anthony Sculimbrene
In my entire life I have had only five different jobs. I was a paperboy. Then, I worked in a library. Then I was a janitor/maintenance guy during summers in college. In graduate school, I did tech work – audio and video equipment and computers. When I graduated from law school, I worked at the NH Public Defender from 2004 to 2016.
Now I have a sixth place to add. Recently I moved from the public sector to the private sector. I now work at Gottesman and Hollis, and in just a few short weeks, I have been amazed at how different things are.
A day at the NH Public Defender is the closest a New Hampshire lawyer can get to being a field medic. There are a lot of emergencies, and the same kinds of problems keep repeating. A client comes in, with no real introduction, and there, in front of you, is some crazy case with strange, incomprehensible facts. Oftentimes, my first goal was just to make sure the person was stabilized, either physically, mentally or both, before I did anything that resembled legal work.
This is because, aside from just putting in face-time, there is very little that can be done for an incarcerated client in the throes of heroin withdrawal. It’s: “Hi, nice to meet you. I am your lawyer. I’ll be back when you are feeling better. I’ll check in tomorrow to make sure you’re okay.” Not the time for a discussion of Georgia v. Randolph. Every day is crazy. Every day is three courts, with staff members at each who think you are late, no matter how early you arrive.
Private practice is a vastly different affair. I had to remember all of those ancient concepts from law school, the legal equivalents of the quadratic equation: the rule against perpetuities; appurtenant easements; testamentary capacity. It all came flooding back, accompanied by the sound of a fox horn.
Alongside those principles is a world of entirely new things – multi-district litigation, federal rules of civil procedure, and complex scientific and medical concepts. If the Public Defender is the field medic station, where I work now is like being a general practice doctor (in the old days, before all they did was refer you to a specialist).
The variety of what I have seen, in only a couple of months, has been pretty staggering – timber trespass to mortgage issues to the most unfathomable injuries to complex federal civil litigation. It feels like there is someone out there spinning a roulette wheel marked with 2,000 different possible legal issues, and I get a new one every day.
In making this transition, the reason I love being a lawyer was made clear – I really like my clients. I like talking with them. I like helping them. I like learning about them. I like fighting for them. Whether he is a first-time offender with a DWI, a teen with a pot charge, a person facing serious felonies, or someone injured in a car accident, the human element is what makes the law enjoyable for me. The legal puzzles are fun, but eventually you need more to sustain your interest. After all, few people can make a living doing puzzles.
Fortunately, the transition has not deprived me of client contact. In fact, in many ways, I have more. Instead of meeting a person for the first time at an emergency bail hearing, I have time to develop a relationship with the client and understand his or her perspective. It is an amazing privilege.
Already I have been taken aback on more than one occasion by how much people try to grin and bear serious, debilitating injuries. Maybe it is Yankee toughness or simply a lack of experience with the law, but so many people come in with truly life-altering medical conditions and really don’t think their lives are all that bad. It is easy to want to fight for these folks.
I am also amazed at how much civil lawyers, or at least the ones I have dealt with, seem to be motivated by that same simple desire that animates people in the public sector – do what’s best for the client. As a former colleague told me before I joined the private sector: Integrity can be found in all parts of the legal profession.
Personally, the transition felt like a great leap. I had done nothing but criminal work in the law, and I had no idea what happened outside that area. I was mystified by the civil case TMCs with a dozen lawyers at the bench talking for an hour or so with the judge. I had no idea how class actions and multidistrict litigation worked, and I was shocked to learn that insurance companies have their hands in just about everything.
But the more I do, the more I realize that the core of my work is the same – helping people, especially those entangled with opponents who possess vast resources. Whether it is the state or an insurance company, these are entities that don’t come to the fight alone. The opponent may be different, but their resource advantage is the same.
Transition is difficult, but as the great philosopher Remi said to his dad in Ratatouille, “Change is nature.” The memory of my Jesuit professors compels me to point out that Heraclitus said the same thing about 2,200 years earlier.
Anthony Sculimbrene is a public defender in the Nashua office of the NH Public Defender and a graduate of the New Hampshire Bar Association Leadership Academy.