People always talk about their clinical work as if it were extraordinary; they speak of appearing on the record, advocating for clients, defending their rights as if it were a once-in-a-lifetime event. Even our name, Harvard Defenders, is comically superlative; there is an implied exclamation point – we are implicit heroes.
The truth of it, however, is more sobering. For our clients, being served is decidedly mundane. Enforcement of the law (the side they don’t teach in law school) is a daily reality for them. Opening the mail to find a summons is frustratingly frequent. An ordinary event with potentially devastating consequences.
One of my clients was a 76 year-old grandfather of three. He lived in public housing and was decidedly cantankerous. A much younger neighbor of his had filed a complaint, claiming that my client had assaulted him. In Massachusetts, the crime of assault and battery is statutorily defined as creating in the victim “fear for one’s life.” When I met my elderly, diminutive client, I knew that this would be a breeze. It was a bit surreal – I was 26 years old, a 1L, yet I found myself thrust into a position of authority. If this complaint issued, my client might be forced out of his apartment, since it was public housing. He was very anxious about this, but more than that, he simply wanted his side of the story to be heard. I listened (and listened).
Ultimately, it was no issue at all. The complainant clearly had personal issues with my client that very quickly emerged once the magistrate asked him a few questions. I barely had to say anything before the magistrate declined to issue the complaint and dismissed the case.
I felt a bit cheated; I had hoped to make a lengthy, complex legal argument. Obviously this rarely happens. Obviously my client was elated. Obviously it was just another day in court.