Indefensible


David Feige’s book, “Indefensible: One Lawyer’s Journey into the Inferno of American Justice” has been on my “to read someday” list for months. I started reading his blog, and then ordered the book from Amazon. I started reading it last night. I may give a more thorough review of it later, but for now I’ll say that I’ve found it extraordinarily true — not that it’s factually accurate (though I have no reason to believe it isn’t) but that it’s densely packed with Truths large and small about the practice of criminal defense law.

Three examples:

First, David describes why he chose to be a public defender rather than pursue a job with the prestigious (read “high-paying”) civil firm where he served a summer clerkship:

But the vertiginous experience of being a bit player in the big world of commerce never quite sat right. Partly it was my insufferable lack of deference, partly it was my defiant streak, and partly it was just because, looking around the firm at my high-powered colleagues, with their sophisticated airs and entitled perspective, all I saw were slaves.

I came to a similar conclusion during my summer clerkships. The word “slaves” didn’t come to mind at the time, but at some point I looked around and saw that nobody was having any fun. I started asking the associates at the firm, “is this job any fun?” and never got a straight “yes” answer. “It has its ups and downs,” they would say, or “It’s a job; it’s not supposed to be fun.” Well, actually, I thought, it is supposed to be fun. So I stopped chasing after the high-paying civil job. I hung out my shingle and started defending people. That course had different risks and different rewards than David’s chosen path as a PD, but the fundamental principles involved are, I think, much the same.

Second, two pages later:

The summation lasted about twelve minutes, each of them floating by me like an iceberg off the bow of a lumbering ship, each moment crystalline, weighty, and portentous. It was the first time, but by no means the last, that I heard myself sum up without understanding a word that I said, some deep part of my limbic system taking over the words while the conscious part of me was left abstractly appreciating the rhythms and sounds, completely divorced from the meaning of any of it. I supposed this was what it was like when an athlete spoke of being in the zone, of doing without thinking, of a deep and golden attention to one’s heartbeat, the smell of the arena, the chill of the late fall, the ball slowing as if thrown through honey.

To me that’s a beautiful description of mindfulness (which I’ve blogged about here and here and here).

Third, a few pages further on:

“Feige,” she said . . . “you gotta know deep down that this is the most righteous work there is, that even though we lose and lose and we get creamed every day, even though we watch them take our clients and haul them off to jail, you have to wake up the next morning and fight your heart out, looking for those few times we can stop it. Not because you’re looking for appreciation, not because you want someone to say, ‘Thanks, Feige, you saved me,’ but because, at the end of the day, no matter what anyone says, you know that what you’re doing is right.”


I have observed before that the more clients pay us, the happier they are with us. Public defenders’ offices often include some of the best lawyers in town, but their clients aren’t paying them anything, much less paying them what they’re worth.

I won’t be surprised if in the next hundred pages he writes something that pisses me off — from his reviews on Amazon.com, it appears that he doesn’t pull any punches, and I won’t be surprised if he has harsh views about those of us who defend those who can afford to pay for representation. Still, on the strength of what I’ve read so far, I would recommend this book to anyone who does what we do.


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