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Representing Alleged Criminals Who Can't Afford a Lawyer

Jan 26, 2015
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Laurie Landsittel gives us valuable insight into the day-to-day duties of public defenders. Laurie shares some of her personal experiences, such as her biggest challenges representing defendants who committed serious crimes, as well as the time when she helped a teenage girl get out of jail and back on her feet. Laurie is a graduate of the University of Georgia Law.

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Host:

From LawHub, this is I Am The law, a podcast where we talk with lawyers about their jobs to shed light on how they fit into the larger legal ecosystem. In this episode, Derek Tokaz interviews a former public defender who discusses life in criminal defense and her transition to legal journalism

Derek Tokaz:

Today I'm joined by Laurie Landsittel. She's a graduate of the University of Georgia School of Law and is currently a journalist for North Carolina Lawyers Weekly. But before that, she was a public defender in Georgia. I'd like you to start by explaining for our listeners the basic of what a public defender is and their role in the criminal justice system?

Laurie Landsittel:

Well, a public defender represent people who cannot afford a lawyer in criminal cases, and their role in the justice system is to ensure that the criminal defendant gets a fair trial, gets justice, and gets the best representation possible.

Derek Tokaz:

I know that there's different types of public defenders depending on what state you're in and possibly where in the state you are. Were you working as a full-time public defender or case by case? How does that work?

Laurie Landsittel:

I was full-time. I was in three different offices in Georgia as a public defender, and each office I was full-time in.

Derek Tokaz:

And so what does it mean to be a full-time public defender? I know in the legal world, full-time is a pretty wide spectrum. Is it a 40 hour per week job or 80 hours a week? What's that like?

Laurie Landsittel:

I would say it varies. Depending on what kind of trials or motions are coming up depends on what kind of workload you're going to have for that day or week. When it gets closer to trial, of course you're pretty much working, I would say with me, I'd be working 60 to 70 hours a week getting prepared for trial. But then there could be days when you don't even work a full eight hours when you didn't get any new cases, you have your caseload under control, which is rare, I do admit. But on average it'd be over 40 hours a week that public defenders would work to be effective.

Derek Tokaz:

You were working this full-time and I assume everyone else in the office was also working. Is that how it's like across all of Georgia? Because I know where I'm from in Alabama, some of the cases are handled by attorneys who have their own practice and pick up public defense just on a case by case basis.

Laurie Landsittel:

We have some of that, it's called conflict cases. We cannot represent two defendants who are blaming each other. I couldn't ethically represent both of them because I'd have to say one said this did it, one said the other did it. So that would not be in our office. That would go to somebody who has their own practice. But this started in I believe 2004. January 1st, 2004, Georgia went to a program called the Georgia Public Defender Standards Council, where the state oversaw the whole public defender system and created public defenders. Where there used to be contract attorneys handling a lot of cases at once, they created a public defender's office.

Derek Tokaz:

Yeah, I think that's something that people who want to get into this field need to keep in mind is how much the very structure of the system can change from county to county or state to state.

Laurie Landsittel:

Right. Definitely.

Derek Tokaz:

What's the average caseload like? About how many cases are you handling at a time?

Laurie Landsittel:

Well, that varies, but I think I can speak for a lot of public defenders, at least in Georgia. I'll give you a little background first before I tell you, but they tried to come up with a system where they could train public defenders. They could have a long place to keep their caseloads down. And it was supposed to have a certain amount of cases, a year of felonies, a certain amount of misdemeanors. You couldn't go over it, but you always have more cases than they say you should under the law. So you really have too many cases.

And the typical caseload could vary between maybe 50 cases at a time to maybe 200 at a time, which is a lot of cases for one person to handle. If you think about it, if you had 200 cases in a time, what happens if every one of those defendants wanted to go to trial? You couldn't effectively represent them. And they have a right to decide. So the choice to go to trial or not is up to the defendant. Most of them go in wanting a trial and it makes public defenders very anxious because you have so many that are saying, "I want to trial, I want to trial, I want to trial." You don't know where to turn your head next.

Derek Tokaz:

So about how often do your cases go to trial? If you have 200 cases, how many times are you going to have a full trial?

Laurie Landsittel:

Honestly, not very much. Usually the state's offer is worth it take. Keep pressing charges, at least where I was, they're not going to press charges unless they got good evidence against you. And usually the state has good evidence, that's why they're taking you to court and pressing charges. So if they don't have good evidence, they probably would've dismissed the case. So usually the clients end up pleading out, which is what it's called, where they enter a guilty plea and they accept the punishment that's either recommended by the state or given to them by the judge. If it's given to them by the judge, it would be called a blind plea. But I would say 99% of the time they plead out because they're getting too good of offers to plead guilty. But we want to move away from that. Public defenders want to move away from that. They do want to go to more trials. They do want to be in the courtroom more. But it's just hard with so many cases. I liked being in the courtroom when I was a public defender. I loved it.

Derek Tokaz:

And I think that's probably what most people are imagining when they want to get into that line of work.

Laurie Landsittel:

Well, yeah.

Derek Tokaz:

We make TV shows about people being in courtrooms and considerably less about taking guilty pleas. So it's not the romanticized view of legal practice.

Laurie Landsittel:

Right. There are a lot of public defenders who are in court a whole lot. I mean, you are in court as a public defender a whole lot. Most public defenders are in court a lot, it might not be at trial, but you have preliminary hearings, you have bail hearings, you have motions, you have plea day, you have all that plus trial. So you have sentencing. So there's a lot of ways to get in the courtroom. And I was in court a lot, but I wasn't at trial a lot.

Derek Tokaz:

Okay. About how much was your time split between being in court in whatever capacity and being at your office doing research or preparing for trial?

Laurie Landsittel:

I'd say I was in court maybe 25% of the time, 20% to 25%. So you could say out of five day, week, one full day a week.

Derek Tokaz:

So what are you doing when you're not in court?

Laurie Landsittel:

I would spend a lot of my time at the jail visiting clients because most of them are in jail because they can't afford to bond out. I would spend a lot of time going out to the scene of crimes and looking at evidence and seeing what I can figure out for myself. I would be talking to the DAs about possible plea offers. I'd be talking to the DAs about their case. I would be writing motions. I would be writing bonds. I mean it's never ending.

Derek Tokaz:

So I want to hear a little bit more about going out to the scene of the crime and doing that investigative work. If you have a good anecdote about that or just an example of what you would be looking for and what type of case that would happen in?

Laurie Landsittel:

I'll tell you one. This isn't about going to a crime scene, but this is a big one. I had a 16-year-old girl who was stuck in jail for using her aunt's phone card. And she's in jail and nobody told me she was in jail. I didn't find out till she'd been there a little bit. So I rushed down there to see her thinking there's this 16-year-old. I get there, the 16-year-old looks like she's about 13. She definitely doesn't belong there. She's in big person jail. And she was homeless with nowhere to go. She had been abused her whole life. She didn't have anywhere to go when she got out. So I had to get her charges dismissed, find her a house that she could live in, and I took her some toiletry essentials to her new house that we had to find for her. I mean, it was just really sad. That's what public defenders do though. If you want to help, I mean, it's never ending. It was sad. I miss her.

Derek Tokaz:

I wanted to ask about what types of crimes you're usually dealing with. Is it largely drug offenses or what's the range of offenses?

Laurie Landsittel:

I do DUIs and drugs mostly. I was an inexperienced public defender. Even though I was there six years, it takes a long time to be able to try a capital case. I was pretty inexperienced. I did do some serious, serious crimes towards the end of my career as a public defender. But mostly I did drugs and DUI cases. Mostly were misdemeanor DUI and felony possession of drugs, or possession with intent to distribute.

Derek Tokaz:

So were you getting those cases mostly because you were still a new public defender? Or is there specialization within the public defender system?

Laurie Landsittel:

I'd say there's not too much specialization, but you kind of get your own niche. There is specialization when it comes to capital cases when somebody's facing the death penalty. We have a whole group of public defenders in Georgia that handle that. I was just new, so they assigned me easier cases and I kind of kept with them. I did take to trial a really serious case towards the end of my career as a public defender. And he was found guilty, but it was reversed on appeal because the judge didn't let me put any of my evidence in. And now he's out of jail.

Derek Tokaz:

So if you have an appeal, is that something that you would argue yourself or are there specialists doing the appellate work?

Laurie Landsittel:

They have appellate attorneys or we do it ourselves. It all depends on if we have a conflict of interest. If they tried to say we were ineffective as counsel for them, we would have to give that to another circuit to handle or another appellate office to handle because we cannot raise on an issue on appeal, our own ineffectiveness. It'd be a conflict of interest. So a lot of times they do say that, so you push them out. The appeal that was reversed, my case, was done by our office. I didn't do it because I had already left, but it was done by our office.

Derek Tokaz:

So what were the biggest challenges you had as a public defender? Is it largely the workload or what was it?

Laurie Landsittel:

I mean, I loved my clients. I felt so bad for most of them because they really didn't come from good situations. They didn't really have a chance in life, most of them. I mean, they'd come from bad home life for the most part. The hardest part was the workload. It was a lot of work. I mean, you can put your heart and soul into it, it still isn't enough. You could literally be doing something 24 hours a day for your cases.

Derek Tokaz:

So when did you decide that you wanted to be a public defender? Is that something you came into law school knowing you wanted to do or how did that come about?

Laurie Landsittel:

Yes. I was seven years old. My grandfather took me to court when I was seven because I told him I wanted to be a lawyer. And it was a criminal case. And it was in Kenton, Ohio, a small town in Ohio. And I didn't like the way the prosecutor was treating the defendant. He was so rude and obnoxious and everything. And so afterwards I decided I was going to be the defense attorney. That's a true story.

Derek Tokaz:

All right. Yeah, you knew exactly what you wanted to do when you started law school, which is I think a pretty enviable place to be in. A lot of people are still figuring that out after graduation. So what did you do in law school to help you prepare for this? Were there any specific classes that you took that really helped out or moot court, those types of things?

Laurie Landsittel:

Definitely. I was weird. I went and worked while I was in law school against... I was allowed to, they didn't say you couldn't, but they didn't advise it. But I worked for several DUI defense attorneys who taught me how to write motions and taught me how to appeal and help me write a book on DUI law. So I did, I worked. And I was in court all the time with those guys and everything. They were good friends of mine.

Derek Tokaz:

And so did you find that really helped you out when you started practicing?

Laurie Landsittel:

Oh, definitely. I would not have known what emotion was if they didn't help me. I would've been like, do I supposed to move? I don't know what it is. Because they don't teach you that in law school. They might do a little bit of that, but I would not have known. And I knew how to do a criminal trial when I got out of law school because of them.

Derek Tokaz:

My commencement speaker at NYU said that her first day in court, she didn't know which side to go to. She had to ask the bailiff which side to stand on.

Laurie Landsittel:

I've been there. It changes all the time.

Derek Tokaz:

Right. So is there any sort of formalized training or mentorships for people who didn't have the same experience that you did?

Laurie Landsittel:

They had some good training in Georgia when they started the Public Defender Standards Council. And I'll tell you, we had probably the best public defender trainer in the nation, who that movie Gideon's Army surrounded around, John Rapping. He was my trainer. He was awesome. Loved him to death. And they didn't have the money for it anymore, so they did away with most of the training. They still have a little bit of training. But my training was extensive. I got there at a lucky time, my training was extensive and very good. It's not the same anymore because of the money situation.

Derek Tokaz:

What was your training like? Was it like being in law school or was it a lot of practicing arguments? Or how'd that go?

Laurie Landsittel:

It was like practicing arguments and stuff like that. Kind of practicing cross examination, practicing direct examination, practicing opening, practicing closing, stuff like that.

Derek Tokaz:

About how long did that go for?

Laurie Landsittel:

I think it was over a week. I think it was about two weeks, a week to two weeks.

Derek Tokaz:

So sort of a criminal defense bootcamp?

Laurie Landsittel:

It was very intensive. It was very intense, yes.

Derek Tokaz:

I want to talk about now why you decided to leave the Public Defender's Office? You said you were there for about six years?

Laurie Landsittel:

Yeah, about six.

Derek Tokaz:

So what happened?

Laurie Landsittel:

Well, my parents had a big part in it. They were getting older and they live in North Carolina and I was only licensed in Georgia. And they kind of wanted me to maybe consider moving back to North Carolina. So I was going to take the North Carolina Bar and go to work as a defense attorney here, but it just didn't work out like that. So it had a lot to do with my family and friends who were in North Carolina. And then I was going to take North Carolina's Bar, maybe get a job as a public defender, but it just didn't fall into place that way.

Derek Tokaz:

Did you notice if there was much of an attrition rate among your fellow public defenders? Is there a lot of burnout in the field? Or is it mostly something that people stay with long term?

Laurie Landsittel:

It's about half and half. I would say a lot stay a long time, a lot burnout and leave. There's not much upward mobility being a public defender. You do get a lot of courtroom experience, which a lot of firms really like. So I'm not telling you there's not mobility to go to a different place. But if you want to stay a public defender, the only other choice you have is maybe becoming a circuit public defender, which would've been my boss at the public defender's office. But there's only a few of those in the whole state. However many circuits there are, there's that many circuit public defenders and I think it's like what, 50 something like that.

Derek Tokaz:

So what is a circuit public defender?

Laurie Landsittel:

Well, he runs the whole office, the whole public defender's office for a circuit, a circuit usually comprised of about three counties in the state. And he runs the whole office for those three counties.

Derek Tokaz:

So is that more of a managerial position or is he still doing normal legal practice also?

Laurie Landsittel:

It's supposed to be more managerial, but it didn't work out like that because our caseloads are too big. He has to jump into the trenches and do it. It was supposed to, it didn't work out that way. It was supposed to be managerial.

Derek Tokaz:

So you're working as a journalist now. Can you tell our listeners a bit about what you're doing in that capacity?

Laurie Landsittel:

I am currently a journalist with North Carolina Lawyers Weekly and South Carolina Lawyers Weekly. We write articles on every aspect of the law, criminal, civil, and we publish our paper every week. And we have all the case law opinions from North and South Carolina that have come out of the appellate courts digested in that paper. Most states have one of these papers. It's the paper that the lawyers get to read the recent cases and to get other news. So that's what I'm doing right now.

Derek Tokaz:

Okay, so the audience is primarily other lawyers, it's not really something that's aimed at the general public?

Laurie Landsittel:

It's primarily lawyers, yes.

Derek Tokaz:

Okay. And so how did you make the transition into journalism?

Laurie Landsittel:

I love to write. As a public defender, that was one of my favorite things to do was writing and arguing motions. I love to do it. And I love to write winning motions and argue them. And so I thought I saw this job, I mean other law lawyers would be able to tell you this, I wasn't thrilled about taking a bar exam again. So I saw this job come up and I applied for it thinking I don't really have of a shot because I don't have any journalism experience. But I just got farther and farther into the interview process. It was a long, long interview. But my boss is great. So that's Amber Nimocks and she does a great job. And it's just really a great career to have. I mean, writing about the law, being a lawyer, I knew a little bit about it coming in. And it's really a lot of fun to write about it and talk to different attorneys, big law firms, small law firms.

Derek Tokaz:

So what's the workload now?

Laurie Landsittel:

As a journalist? It's not the same as being a public defender, but there's deadlines and you have to reach them. I think it has a lot to do with that my boss is very calm, so you don't feel stressed or anything. So you don't feel like the workload's undoable, it's more like you put one thing down and you pick the next thing up instead of doing everything at once, like a public defender.

Derek Tokaz:

Do you think this is the type of position where you could stay long term?

Laurie Landsittel:

I love it. I do love it. I'm not saying that I'll be doing this forever, but right now I love it. It's a lot of fun. You get to meet all the lawyers in the area. They all call you and tell you about their latest legal news. I think that, not criminal law, but with civil law, I've learned more about civil law since I've started this job six months ago than I've learned my whole career. Because I've been doing a lot of civil law cases, a lot of reading civil cases, and I've just learned a lot of facts about the law.

Derek Tokaz:

Probably get to have nicer relationships with the lawyers too, since you're never on the opposite side of them? Yeah, it's always friendly interactions with them as opposed to going to trial.

Laurie Landsittel:

That's a great point. And definitely a lot better. Definitely a good point. I mean, I say that to my parents, I say that all the time. I was like, it's amazing how nice these lawyers are to me now.

Derek Tokaz:

Is there anything that you wish you knew before you started either career, things that caused rookie mistakes?

Laurie Landsittel:

Well, I'm always getting told that I'm too much of a legal writer. I need to learn how to be more conversational. So I wish I was a more conversational writer, but they're working with me and it's going well. I think that how sad it was before being a public defender, how many people rely on the public defender and how sad that they have lived through the life that they have lived through. It's amazing. I mean, you can't really judge these people till what they've been through in their whole entire life.

Derek Tokaz:

So I just have one last question before we wrap it up. And I wanted to know if there's anything you knew when you were in law school, which turned out you were completely wrong about?

Laurie Landsittel:

I thought I'd be in court every day doing trials. And I loved my judges that I worked for, don't get me wrong, but I thought they would know the law. And a lot of them do not know anything about the law and they're up there ruling because they're elected. So they get elected on their personalities, but they don't know the law. It's really scary to be making an argument in front of a judge when you know you're right and he just completely just doesn't understand because he hasn't read up on it. And I guess that's what the Court of Appeals is for. I thought judges would be the absolute knowledge people of the law, but they're not. Some are, some aren't.

I just didn't know there'd be so much inconsistency in sentences. I mean, in Atlanta you'd get probation for having a certain drug. You'd get maybe two years of probation. Whereas where I was at in Thomaston, Georgia, this small rural town about two hours south of Atlanta, you'd probably get two to five years in prison for the same thing in Atlanta you'd get probation for. That's not fair. I'd have so many clients come down there and tell me in Thomaston, "Well, in Atlanta, I'd get a year of probation for this. And why are they wanting 10 years in prison?" And my boss always said, "You're not in Atlanta anymore."

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