I have practiced criminal law for my entire legal career. As a public defender, I represent the indigent who are accused of criminal wrongdoing. I started in the misdemeanor/traffic division and am now a principal assistant public defender in the felony trial division. I have been in my current position for approximately ten years now.
As a felony assistant, I represent clients charged with every type of felony offense from drug possession to murder. On the job, I fight for my clients’ freedom every day. Oftentimes, we are the only thing standing between a client and incarceration. Sadly, as criminal defense attorneys, we sometimes have to advise our clients to strongly consider taking plea bargains where they lose their freedom. This advice is necessary because the consequences of losing at trial would be far more devastating. It is a tough pill to swallow (both mentally and emotionally) when you play a role in your client losing his freedom — the very thing you fight to protect at all costs. But, while the practice of criminal defense is not easy, it is extraordinarily rewarding to know you helped make a difference in someone’s life who had no one else in his or her corner.
How has your practice evolved in the last few years?
My role as a criminal defense attorney continues to be more than just simply defending a person accused of a crime. On a daily basis, I represent clients with mental illnesses and drug addictions. I have to be able to identify these problems so that I can better understand my client’s individual needs and advocate for them more effectively. Oftentimes, I am more than just my client’s lawyer: I am someone who can offer them the assistance they need, listen to their struggles, and lend them a helping hand.
The Lake County Public Defender’s Office is fortunate enough to employ a full time social worker. She helps assist both the client and the attorney address many of the issues that our clients face every day. This can range from working with the attorney to locate treatment options for the client and with helping the client obtain medication or find housing once their case is resolved and they are released from jail. I have seen the practice of law become more holistic in this way in recent years.
Likewise, when criminal law changes, it can profoundly affect how we advise our clients and handle our cases. For example, in 2010 the United States’ Supreme Court declared that attorneys representing non-U.S. citizens charged with a crime have a constitutional obligation to properly advise clients regarding the immigration consequences of a plea of guilty. It is not enough to simply advise a client that they may get deported; when the consequences of a guilty plea are clear an attorney must properly advise their client of these consequences. My office has responded to this change in the law by hiring two immigration specialists to assist attorneys in determining the consequences of a particular plea so that the proper advice can be given.
I am hopeful that there will be meaningful reforms to the criminal justice system in the coming years; and I see signs that this will be the case. I predict that diversion programs will continue to grow so that we can achieve justice for victims while also allowing a defendant to avoid the stigma of a felony conviction. I believe that we will continue to see more counties taking a holistic approach to criminal justice by expanding drug and mental health court programs so that we can treat the causes of criminal behavior rather than just punishing the symptoms.
If you could offer one piece of advice for young lawyers, what would it be?
Never sacrifice your reputation. As both a female and a visible minority when I first started at the Public Defender’s Office, it was pretty clear no one in the legal community in Lake County shared my ethnic background. Although I was worried about how judges, prosecutors, and my colleagues would perceive me, I was most concerned with how my clients would respond to me. Would they take me seriously? Would they think I was less intelligent? Would they take my perspective into consideration? For the most part, I am not a loud and in-your-face type of person or attorney. I subscribe to the theory that an attorney can be equally, if not more, effective by being respectful yet aggressive. I quickly learned that the best way to be “heard” was thru hard work. I had a very serious job to do, and the only way I knew how to do it best was to be as diligent as I could. By working hard, I believe I have earned a reputation as a zealous advocate for my clients and an attorney who is honest and respectful.
What’s one technological device, application or tool you could not function without?
Although I often feel like we as a society have become too dependent on technology and way too accessible, I would probably pick my iPhone. As much as I hate it, I love it. If I need to get in touch with someone I can call or email. If I need to look up a case or a statute I can. It is one small device that gives me the capability of doing many things.
How has civility made a difference in your practice of law?
Civility makes a difference in my area of law because I truly believe that the more respect you show others, the more you get in return from dealing with clients, court personnel, prosecutors, and judges. Our clients are often in the depths of despair; they are afraid, alone and untrusting. It is through compassion, understanding and recognizing that they are human beings who need our help that we form a productive relationship with our clients. The best defenses evolve only when a client can trust you as their lawyer.
In dealing with prosecutors it is important for both sides to have mutual respect for each other. Acting with civility gives me an ability to understand both sides, and this often results in a better disposition for my client. A prosecutor who is so put off by your attitude will be less likely to hear your arguments and hence your client suffers. There have been times when I have wanted to yell at a prosecutor because I thought they were being unfair but I bit my tongue because I know I can make the same point by being calm.
Judges and court personnel are the people we have to appear in front of everyday. Gaining favor with them thru civility can go a long way. I do not always agree with a judge’s decision or ruling but how you are able to handle and deal with an adverse result says a lot about your character and your ability to defend your client.
What do you do for fun?
I love to eat!! I am a foodie!! I love spending time with family and friends and sharing a meal and catching up. I enjoy unwinding at the gym. I love boot camp and lifting weights and just recently discovered yoga.
Sharmila Manak is a principal assistant public defender for the Lake County Public Defender’s Office in Lake County, IL. She also is a licensed Barrister and Solicitor of the Upper Law Society of Canada.