Nine Notions for New Juvenile Defenders

Attorneys come to Juvenile Court in different ways. Some of us are fresh out of law school, excited to get our first case, while others of us have been attorneys for years and are looking to diversify our practice. Regardless of our background, Juvenile Court is unquestionably unique. Below are my top nine tips for new attorneys, which are also great reminders for those of us who’ve been doing this for a while.

1. Be prepared. Nothing combats inexperience like preparation. Juvenile court has a lot of moving pieces, isolate the variables and anticipate what is next. Many of the additional tips are suggestions on ways to be do just that.

2. Read the book(s). Many of the calls I get from new defenders are requesting guidance for where to find resources. The answer is Chapter 7B. This is a great place to start and a great place to return. Another invaluable resource is the Juvenile Defender Manual. After spending some time with the primers, I encourage you to explore the other resources on our site. We have links to past trainings, brief banks, and other reference materials.

3. Build relationships. Part of being prepared means talking with court counselors and district attorneys before court. It means calling the schools and talking to teachers. Building relationships is more than just calling when you need something though. It means something as simple as saying, “How was your weekend?”. Becoming integrated into your legal community and community at large is essential for being a good advocate for your client.

4.Advocate for your client. Through your relationship building, you may encounter people who tell you they don’t understand why you are fighting them. They are just trying to help your client. That may be very true, there are lots of people trying to do what they think will help your client, but you are the only person who is advocating for what your client wants. You may worry that you will lose the respect of the other folks in the courtroom, but you won’t. You are upholding your sworn ethical duty. That means something. And to your client that means everything.

5. Don’t be afraid to put on the brakes. Juvenile court moves fast. Before you know it, your client may be on his way to a detention center. It is okay to ask the Court to be heard. It is okay to ask the Court for more time to continue the case. It is okay to ask for a moment to consult with your client while cross-examining a witness or to gather your thoughts for a closing. Most of the other people in the courtroom get paid to work until 5 PM and do not expect anything less. While you may feel pressure to move quickly, protecting your client’s rights are paramount. This is where being prepared and building relationships are important. If it appears that your requests are based on a need for your client and not your failure to prepare for court, then it will be hard for anyone to fault you for the request.

6. Meet your clients where they are. Your client cannot legal drive; they may or not have the ability to get to you. However, meeting with your client before court is critical. This is the first step in developing a relationship with your client. If your client is at the detention center, it is even more imperative that s/he hear from you. This first meeting sets the tone for your entire representation of this client. This is where you inform the importance of not talking to others about the case. Meeting your clients where they are involves more than a physical location, it includes meeting your client at where s/he is developmentally and emotionally. Spend some time assessing your client’s communication style and speak to that. This doesn’t mean talking down to the client, it means talking in a language your client understands.  If you are able to meet your client where they are, you will make your job much easier and secure a better outcome for your client in the long run.

7. Follow through. As you continue to build relationships with your client, with his parents, and with other folks in the court, it is imperative that you follow through when you say you are going to do something. Adolescence take us at our word. If we say we will call at 5 PM with an update,then we must call at 5 PM. An adult may understand that if they don’t receive a call, it means there is no update, but a juvenile just sees that you broke a promise. Many of our clients have had adults break promises throughout their lives, and as attorneys, we have to do better to instill confidence in our clients. A better practice is to make small promises you know you can keep.

8. Follow-up. When something happens in the case, follow up with your client. Keeping in touch with your client reminds the client that you are working in the case and that it matters. Additionally, it serves as a reminder to the client. A lot of things happen really quickly in court, and a follow up after court may clarify what has happened to the client. It can also help prevent unintentional violations of the court order based on misunderstandings.

9. Ask for help. When you reach a stumbling block in a case, don’t be afraid to ask for help. The law in Juvenile Court is not as settled as other areas of practice, so you should never feel bad for seeking guidance. As you are building relationships, don’t forget your fellow juvenile defenders. In addition to the wealth of knowledge of juvenile law they offer, those attorneys offer insight into local practices that can’t be matched. Daily we speak to attorneys across the state. Sometimes the call is as soon as a petition is issued, sometimes the attorney has requested a recess mid-trial to call us. Either way, our office is just a phone call or email away with no judgement and a desire to help!

What advice do you have for new defenders? Do you have a different point of view? Please feel free to leave comments!

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