I Lost A Client

Battle with AddictionLet’s call him Andrew.  We spent some time together last week.  Quick to smile, self-deprecating, and genuinely appreciative as a client, I’ve liked him from the start.

I could immediately see Andrew was agitated, but most people wouldn’t have picked up on that. I gave him the head nod and we silently walked out of the courtroom and into the hallway to talk.

Andrew didn’t start this conversation with his usual smile.  He was polite as ever, immediately apologizing for the purpose of our being there.  This time, things were different.

Andrew was more distracted than normal.  He fidgeted, barely able to stand in one spot.

It didn’t help that it was a madhouse on the 4th floor of the Mecklenburg County Courthouse.  Courtrooms are generally sterile, uncomfortable public spaces within. The hallways outside courtrooms are pandamonium, where the river of humanity and problems overflow.

That’s where we met, in the middle of the panoply of psychosis, substance abuse, bad choices, and angst.  I would have preferred a conference room.  There were none available.

I saw but hardly noticed the ubiquitous tears on random cheeks and faces buried in hands.  Several young mothers played with their babies, encircled by paintings of long-forgotten jurists still passing judgment, if only through oil on canvas.

Nearby, a woman insentient from a heroin-Fentanyl concoction, slumped over in a mouth agape stupor.  Periodically, voices raised in anger briefly disturbed the already cacophonous surroundings, requiring intervention by deputies to avoid an all-out donnybrook.

Court that morning was loud, bustling, and for the uninitiated, completely discombobulating.  For the 26 year veteran of the courtroom, it was Tuesday.

We quickly got to the point.  Andrew had just been busted again and in my mind, this arrest was ominous.  It was emblematic of a person hurtling towards more-and-more pain.

While only a misdemeanor, when I heard my paralegal and associates talking about his newest set of charges, I told them I’d handle the appearance myself.  It didn’t matter how apparently minor it was on the depth-chart of criminal offenses.

This one worried me.  I needed to talk to Andrew face-to-face.  I was going to court, come hell or high water.

I’m generally not a touchy-feely guy, at least while standing there in the hallway of criminal court, surrounded, if not engulfed by troubles.  I wanted to reach out and connect with Andrew.

Given my Sasquash-like frame and his more slight build, hugging Andrew would have freaked him out.

He could barely stand still, rocking back and forth, eyes darting and rarely making contact.  Instead, I drew close, waiting for the chance for Andrew to hear me.

I think he did.

Andrew’s dad, I’ll call him “Tom,” stood there with us, saying almost nothing.  That’s Tom:  Never volunteering much, but always by Andrew’s side supporting him.  Tom looked tired.  Heartbroken, it had been a long time since he worried about the embarrassment of it all.

Tom is a loving father.  He’s caring without being an enabler.  If only more parents were like that instead of the near maniacal, helicopter moms and dads we manage in most cases nowadays.

For them, it’s only about shame, their shame, because it always has been and will remain about them, not their kids.  They focus on the symptom, not the cause.

With no patience for Kabuki theatrics, I bluntly asked, “What’s up with this huffing stuff?”  If you know nothing about huffing, good for you.  Pray no one you love gets hooked on it.

“Huffing” today is when kids inhale keyboard cleaner to get a temporary but intense high.  Yes, keyboard cleaner.  It comes in an aerosol spray bottle.  They call it “air duster.”  You can get it by the case at any Office Depot.

Huffing, purposely abusing inhalants, displaces oxygen in the lungs, causing hypoxia.  It is chemical suffocation.  You normally pass out.  Maybe you wake up.

It’s dirt cheap and easily obtained.  There are no dealers.  There are no secret rendezvous.  Walmart sells it.

And no one pays attention when you plop a can down on the counter, although they should.  It’s against the law to sell it if you have reasonable cause to suspect it’s for huffing.

In the thousands of legal matters I’ve handled during my career, I’ve never seen or heard of a single criminal prosecution for illegally selling inhalants.

Describing users, I use the term “kids” purposely because no one is a life-long huffer.  You don’t live long enough.  In my humble but educated opinion on drug addiction, huffing almost always ends with a funeral.

It was for that reason I had to see Andrew.  We all knew he was a poly-substance abuser.  I’d previously asked him, “What are your drugs of choice?  Cocaine, crack, bars (Xanax), Molly (ecstasy), weed, booze?”  His answer was basically, “Yes.”

Andrew’s arrest record reflected his hydra-headed addictions.  I knew immediately he was trying to, what I call, “Turn off your brain.”  He couldn’t stop thinking.  “Some” of an intoxicant was never enough.

Whether it was alcohol or a benzodiazepine, Andrew consumed not just until he would pass out.  He consumed so he could pass out.

If one drink is good, ten is better.  It’s not about the taste or the buzz or getting a bit crazy. The whole point of the exercise is to shut down.

I understand that type of substance abuse.  It’s one reason I don’t drink anymore.  I too have trouble turning off my brain.  Frankly, it’s a common problem with a lot of courtroom lawyers I know and love.  It doesn’t matter whether they’re defense attorneys or prosecutors.

What makes them good in court can be difficult to live with.  It’s not OCD or ADD or some other acronym.  It’s different.

In my legal journey, I deal with the inability to stop thinking, processing, and working through problems. I see myself as a problem solver and a lawyer who, above all, truly wants to help people.

Unfortunately, some cases don’t have answers.  Some matters can’t be won and some clients can’t be saved.  That drives me nuts.  I take losses hard.

That’s great for the client.  No one will outwork or “out-prepare” that type of lawyer.  Mix in any sense of empathy for your fellow human and you have the makings of a true advocate for justice.

Sometimes that level of dedication and intensity can be confused as ego.  Trust me, it’s anything but that.  Indeed, it’s the exact opposite of what you might expect, which is the very definition of irony.

At 53, I have found ways to slow down and turn off my brain with mindful meditation, working out, and faith.  During our meeting last week, I shared that and more with Andrew.

He gave me a knowing look.  Despite the noise around us, I felt we had a genuine connection.  He opened up and to some extent, he shared his pain.

I’m no Pollyanna.  I didn’t expect immediate change.  I tend to be a worrier.  It’s both in my nature and comes from years of experience as a criminal lawyer.

Recognizing an issue is not the same as addressing an issue.  Andrew and I knew and recognized his problem.  He promised nothing, other than telling me, “I’ll try.”

Andrew at 27 years old found treatment to be a hassle and to some extent useless.  He was ashamed of taking anything more from his dad.  He felt compelled to work, to take care of himself, and to stop hurting his parents.

A full-time job isn’t necessarily conducive to recovery.  Andrew was fine when he was with people and in meetings.  Andrew suffered when he was by himself, when he couldn’t shut down or sleep.  It was only a matter of time before he looked for ways to turn off the noise.

Andrew wasn’t some “lowlife drug addict” or whatever judgmental, ignorant idiots call people like him.  Andrew was a nice kid, who felt terrible for his parents and apologized to his lawyer for being a difficult client.

I shared my walk in life with Andrew, making sure to point out it was my walk, not his.  I stressed he had to find his own path.  I begged of Andrew one thing, “Please, please, don’t make me go to another funeral.  I just can’t.  Not for you.”

I shook Tom’s hand and held it a bit longer than normal.  I said nothing and just looked him in the eye.  In retrospect, it was a courthouse hug.  It likely made him a bit uncomfortable.

I don’t remember how I reached out and touched Andrew.  It probably was something lame like a fist-bump.  I truly try to connect with these kids I call clients.

Despite my obviously inept approach, I hope they understand I’m trying to speak their language of love and friendship.  I strive to meet them at their point of need.  I want them to know I relate with and care for them.

I sent Andrew a couple follow-up texts, asking for an update on treatment.  I didn’t get a response.

So when I got an email Thursday night from Tom, letting me know Andrew had been killed in a car accident most certainly caused by impairment, I was both heartbroken and unsurprised.

I went downstairs and hugged Mookie, my 17-year-old daughter.  I wanted to cry, but she already has to live with a man who shares too much about the dangers of youth and life.

This isn’t the first client I’ve lost and it most certainly won’t be the last.  And while I’m not “a hugger” around the courthouse or even among friends, I am with my family.  I wanted to hold her close and never let her go.

I’m not big on sleeping.  Apparently, neither is my DA friend who is a wonderful person in addition to being a fabulous trial lawyer.  She most certainly is included in my “best lawyers I know” list.

So at 3:15 a.m. I shared Andrew’s death with her via email.  She and one of her co-workers immediately responded, telling me they’d dismiss Andrew’s cases in short order.  That was completed the same day.  The value of their compassion cannot be overstated; nor will it ever be forgotten.

I understand this blog post may come as a surprise to some.  If you’re a courtroom lawyer with any level of experience, it’s a familiar tale.

Lawyers survive in an adversarial process through kindness, professionalism and lasting friendships, especially those shared with your adversary across the aisle in the courtroom.  If you think being an attorney is all about posturing, arguing, and self-aggrandizement, please don’t go to law school.  Do something else to feed your ego.

The legal practice for folks who handle criminal and family law cases is a tremendously difficult way to make a living.  I don’t always get it right.

Just this week I reacted to something in anger, without knowing all the facts.  I’d forgotten my favorite motto, one often repeated by my maternal grandfather “RL.”  It’s nice to be nice.  I’ve added to his mantra:  Apologize immediately and mean it.  I did and do.

Mind you, I am not complaining about being a lawyer.  It’s the best way I personally know how to help people.  It is deeply fulfilling work for me; but, I didn’t always see it that way.  I am an accidental advocate.

If you want to know what it’s really like to be a lawyer, go to a treatment center, talk to someone facing their life-struggle, and just listen without judgment.

I dread going to Andrew’s funeral this Monday. I don’t want Tom to have to see me, knowing I am nothing more than a reminder of Andrew’s suffering.

But just like court, I feel compelled to be there for Andrew and his family.  Andrew’s loss is my loss.  I’ve decided when that stops happening, I’m going to do something other than practice law.

I lost a client.  His name was Andrew.

The way I’m going to settle my mind with this tragedy, because there truly is no solution to this problem, is to talk about it, to hopefully teach and thank others as appropriate, and to apologize if I ever forget to be nice.

I’m also going for a long walk right now.

My deepest condolences are with Tom and his family.

Bill Powers




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