Kevin J. Ochalla (Class of 1998)
I entered New England School of Law in 1998 and graduated in the Day division in 2001. I decided to become a Public Defender largely because of two reasons. One, I loved criminal law, evidence and trial practice classes. Criminal law has always intrigued me, but watching, or being part of it, as it's played out in court is addictive. A skilled trial attorney trying a case is comparable to good author writing a story that comes together in the end or Sammy Sosa as he gets all of a home run ball at Wrigley with the wind blowing out (yes, I practice in Chicago). It can be graceful and beautiful to watch, but incredibly complex and intricate to master. When it happens to you, when it all comes together and you win because of your skill, it is one of the best feelings you can ever have. I wanted to become a skilled trial attorney. IF YOU DO NOT WANT TO TRY CASES YOU WILL NOT BE HAPPY AS A PUBLIC DEFENDER.
Two, I have always rooted for the little guy. And let me tell you, the clients that the public defender gets are the little guys of our society. Our clients are those that cannot afford counsel. They are facing criminal charges, often times jail or prison time because of what they have been charged with. The public defender is their voice in court. It is up to us to see that everyone we represent is afforded the best possible representation in court that can be provided. On a larger scale I feel that every day I go into court I am protecting the rights and liberties that we all have by ensuring that those with the least ability to project their voices are heard.
While I was at New England, a number of experiences helped me discover that I wanted to be a public defender. Most importantly, I took the Criminal Procedure II clinic my last year, and was placed at CPCS, the Massachusetts equivalent of the public defenders office. More than anything else, it was the people at CPCS who convinced me defense was the side I wanted to be on. I also benefitted from more general litigation training while at New England. I took Trial Practice, and I took the Lawyering Process, a civil litigation clinic where I performed my fieldwork at Greater Boston Legal Services.
I think it is also important to mention some of the other aspects of the job that you would face if you choose this line of work. Some of the non-law related aspects of the job can be frustrating if you don't have the right attitude. I think my favorite is when a client tells me to do something inappropriate, and possibly painful, with my files as he is now 'going to get a real lawyer.' This usually comes the day of trial. Generally what happens then is that the private attorney comes in a couple of weeks later on the case and gets the same result as you would have. The only difference is that your former client just paid him or her a large sum of money to do the same you were going to do.
The other popular, and possibly most difficult, question that you get as a public defender is, 'How can you defend those people?' I have lost friends over this question and gained friends over this question. Some of the people that ask this question are victims or relatives of victims. It is hard to tell someone that lost a father or sister in a DUI accident that you defend drivers accused of DUI. Sometimes, to some people, you might as well have been driving the car.
Some of this attitude comes from TV, movies and ignorance of the true, non-'Cops' nature of the criminal system. Some people see defense lawyers as slimy, sneaky cheats that use 'tricks, smoke and mirrors' to 'get clients off' that are really guilty. Or you face some people that think that because someone is arrested they must be guilty. (Be very careful of these people on your juries). Whatever the reason, it seems to be a popular misconception of what defense attorneys do. I ensure that all people are represented, get a fair outcome in court, and that the State follows the Constitution and state law in securing a conviction.
A public defender's case load can be quite high, and a public defender's salary can be quite low. But it is an excellent place to practice trial skills, learn local court and jurisdictional rules, and to network. In my first year of practice I was regularly in court with the Republican candidate for governor's campaign manager, the President of the DuPage County Bar Association, The President of the DuPage County Defense Bar, the Chief Judge of Misdemeanor Division, and three prior Chief Judges of DuPage County, and several of the top attorney's in the county. If you are looking for quick or big money, or a pat on the back every week this may not be for you. But if you want to develop trial skills and contacts this is an excellent place to start.