5 Things I Learned To Do as a Public Defender that You Can Do Too

Before starting my law practice, I served as a public defender in King and Snohomish Counties.  Looking back, I can say that public defense was the most rewarding job of my career. 


Why was it rewarding? Honestly, I enjoyed the trial by fire.  I mean that quite literally: I had my first jury trial the second week of the job, just a week after meeting my client.  Suddenly, I was that prototype public defender that I saw on TV.  I was scared, uncomfortable and out of my comfort zone.  But you know what?  My fear made me buckle down and comb through every fact in the case.  And it worked.  My client walked away with a not guilty verdict.  


While I was grinding it out, I wasn’t alone.  Surrounding me were some of the smartest and most generous people I’ve encountered.  I learned everything from my coworkers, and now I want to share some of those teachings with you.    


These are 5 Things I Learned To Do as a Public Defender and that You Can Do Too.


#1: Find the best, and copy them.


I learned a valuable tip early on in my career: copy the best.  In his book, Invisible Influence, Author Jonah Berger said that we mimic the people we admire.  If so, then find the admirable experts in your office – the ones that are efficient, knowledgeable, and love their jobs – and investigate into their best practices.  What efficiency secrets do they have to share?  What are their work flows like?   How do they do what they do?


Everything I am writing now came from those rock star lawyers and staff at the public defender. 


#2: Take care of yourself!


When we have a demanding job, we tend to leave our health at the wayside. We must fight this tendency!  Without your health, your deadlines won’t be any easier to keep up with, your client meetings won’t be any shorter, your judge won’t be any less grumpy.  So, take some time to focus on you.


·       Eat healthy and pack your lunch.  


·       Keep active and take the stairs, instead of the elevator.


·       And take a proper break by calendaring your alone time.  


What’s alone time?  Twice a day for ten minutes, you will stop everything and sit in silence with your eyes closed, letting your thoughts come and go.  When most of your day is dealing with stressed out clients, judges, and sometimes coworkers, we all need a quick reset.  After your breaks, I promise you will feel more able and better prepared to continue.  Finally, hold yourself accountable by scheduling the alone time like you would a client or staff meeting.


#3: Make checklists.


Everyone loves checklists because they are easy to follow, replicable, and make you look like a total pro.  Make checklists for your common workflows so that when things get hectic (they will), you have a solid foundation to work from.


·       Be concise.  If someone else needs to cover your position at work, they should be able to quickly understand the necessary tasks.  By the way, supervisors love this display of initiative and preparedness.


·       Use checklists to keep your clients’ expectations in check.  If you have a complicated client explanation, put it in bullet-points and give a copy to them.  Your clients will feel like you are prepared, knowledgeable, and care about them.  These assurances might save you valuable time later explaining what you previously explained.


·       Checklists are fun and productive.  Try checking something off a list and not feel good about it.  Look back at your day’s checklists to see how much you’ve accomplished in a day.


#4: Keep cool, you are stronger than you think.


Why waste time being anti-productive?  The job would be boring if we didn't get our world rocked every now and again.  And if someone is speaking negatively, don’t indulge!  I've seen this throughout my legal career, and ultimately, that talk will just mess with your head.  Think Pulp Fiction, "be cool, honey bunny, be cool."


You are stronger than you think.  Believe it and repeat it.


#5: Be grateful.


When I’ve helped people out of very difficult times in their lives, I often reflect on the things I am grateful for.  I think about how lucky I am to have my health, my family, and my friends. 


And by practicing the things described above, I waste less time, I can stay positive, and I could best serve my clients.


What about you?  Do you have any tips to overcome your extra challenging jobs?  Any tips from your profession that you think can apply to others?  Let me know your thoughts.




I am a criminal defense and small-business lawyer in Seattle, Washington.  Interested in chatting?  Email me, connect with me on Twitter, or sign up for my monthly newsletter.  In the Five Minutes newsletter, I share the best five minutes of thoughts from young business owners, professionals and passionate people.