I’ve been at cocktail parties where well-groomed, well-intentioned people have asked me if I’m scared at work. They seem perplexed when I explain that I never am. They ask me, whether I’ve been afraid of clients, whether if I loose a case I’m afraid they’re going to come back, looking for me, or looking to avenge themselves on the system through me. They seem to imagine a tattooed Robert DeNiro playing the vengeful Max Cady in the movie Cape Fear.
Cape Fear of course was the film in which Cady, a recently released rapist played by DeNiro stalks his former defense attorney who, it turns out, withheld evidence that might have allowed him to win the case. It’s quite clear in the movie that DeNiro was guilty, and it is made abundantly clear that he is a bad and scary man. But, the strange thing about the movie is that once I realized that Cady, guilty, or otherwise, had actually been betrayed by his own lawyer, I was rooting for him.
Of course, I’ve had clients who I feel I have failed. They are the ones, most people would assume I’d be afraid of. Oddly, the opposite is usually the case. Cape Fear was released in 1991, two years before I lost the trial that sent W. to jail. W. and his Girlfriend had every reason in the world to hate me. We’d gone to trial: I’d assumed the responsibility for getting him his life back, for defending him against horribly unjust and untrue allegations, and I’d utterly failed him. I'd walked beyond my skill and experience and because I did, I’d screwed up and grievously screwed up his life.
On April 9th With W. nearing the end of his sentence, I got a letter from his girlfriend. Typed carefully on a sheet of ivory bond paper, here is what she wrote to me:
I am writing this letter on behalf of W. I know I have thanked you many times before, but I wanted to express my gratitude further.
I sincerely appreciate all the help you’ve given W, and the concern you have shown for him. As you know, the outcome of this case was devastating for both W. and myself. This has been a very frustrating time for us. It is a relief to know that I can count on you to answer any questions I may have when others can’t (or won’t) I know that you must be overloaded with work, yet you always find the time to help us. There should be more people like you working within this system.
W. was very fortunate to be appointed an attorney whose willingness and perseverance has made some differences. I hope all your clients will be as lucky as we were.
That’s what I got for utterly fucking up his life. Guess I should be scared huh?