It recently occurred to me I’m in my third decade practicing law. The 1990s, 2000s and 2010s. Granted, I was first licensed in 1999, but it’s still a true statement. Clients have come and gone as have attorneys and judges. Some clients come in for a case and I spend a great deal of time with them, but after the case is over the only time I see them is at the grocery store. Other clients return to the office within weeks or months.
My law practice is a constant mix of new clients and repeat clients. Similarly, my practice is a mix of new legal issues and repeat legal issues. No attorney has seen it all. What we have all seen is a lot of the same things. Certain misperceptions about the court system crop up again and again in our clients and the public. In this column and others to follow I hope to clear up a few of them. To make sure I stay on the good side of the Kentucky Bar Association, it’s important I point out that nothing in this column is legal advice and should not be taken that way.
Well-known people don’t get better treatment in court.
A few years ago there was an outcry because a prominent University of Kentucky athlete got a $100 fine plus court costs for possession of marijuana. Some people were outraged believing the prosecutor and the judge went light on him because of who he was and where he played sports. Nevermind that the standard sentence for anyone who is convicted of possession of marijuana is a $100 fine plus court costs. He got the same sentence as everyone else.
What would have been unfair? A heavier sentence. If you are well-known and get charged with a crime, people are watching. There is more pressure on prosecutors to convict and punish these people, not less. When I represent someone well-known on a criminal charge, I generally try to keep the case as quiet as possible just to make sure there’s no extra pressure to “make an example” of my client. Once in a while, there is a compelling reason to speak out about a criminal case, but usually I find it’s best to be low key.
Attorneys are not required to talk to their clients’ families (and sometimes can’t).
Because I’m in private practice, I strive to provide good customer service. Usually that means, if my client wants me to, I speak to their families about the case. But the fact is a lawyer isn’t required to do it and sometimes we aren’t even allowed to. An attorney’s legal duty is to the client and only the client. Even if a family member has paid the fee, if I’m instructed by my client not to talk to their family, then legally, I can’t do it.
Public defenders are full-fledged attorneys.
There is a persistent misconception I’ve heard repeated again and again over the years. Many people who pass through the court system believe the public defenders who work in the courts are somehow different than the other attorneys. It’s simply not true. They graduated from the same law schools as the other attorneys and passed the same bar exam. Public defenders just happened to take a job with the Department of Public Advocacy. Some public defenders even worked in private practice before they took positions as public defenders. Many public defenders do the job because they have a passion for public service.
It is true public defenders tend to have enormous caseloads no private practice attorney would carry. It is also true some are young and learning on the job. You know what else is true? The public defenders’ office serving Clark, Jackson and Madison County has attorneys who graduated from the following law schools: Kentucky, Vanderbilt, Wake Forest, Harvard and Temple. So, while even though you can’t choose your public defender and you may not get the same level of service as you would from a private practice attorney, they do deserve the same level of respect — maybe more.
It’s silly to throw your weight around when your child has a public defender.
Often, young adults and college students who get in trouble qualify for a public defender. When mommy shows up to court with her Coach purse and daddy is in his Brooks Brothers and they try to throw their weight around, they make fools of themselves. A public defender is like legal welfare. If you’re wealthy, but you let your child live off welfare, there’s something wrong. Either get your wallet out and hire an attorney or go back to the country club.
People often give away money thinking they paid child support.
When someone pays an ex in cash for child support, the court views it as a gift. Unless it’s a check or money order, they don’t get credit. Same goes for when people buy the child stuff, even if it’s practical. Then they’re faced with paying the same money a second time.
Child support is not intended to be saved for the college fund.
I don’t handle family court matters anymore, I simply don’t have the time, but I used to. One refrain I heard again and again from intelligent people: “I paid my ex child support for years, there should be plenty of money for college.” I always shook my head, but not for the reason these outraged folks thought. I shook my head because that’s not what child support is for.
Child support is intended to support the child while the child is … you guessed it, a child. Most of these families were not well off, they were middle class or below, living paycheck to paycheck. Child support was part of the family budget, not a nest egg. I can’t explain why, but many of these same people also believed if their ex was collecting child support, they should never ever take a vacation. Ever.
Wesley Browne is an attorney with Browne Law Office, PSC. His wife is a directing attorney with the Kentucky Department of Public Advocacy. Mr. Browne can be reached through his website www.brownelawoffice.com.