When I talk about what I do, I often say that a big part of my job is to translate the law. The choice of that word – translate – is very deliberate on my part. My good friend and business manager Arthur and I have been friends for a long time, but we come from very different backgrounds. When we met, he was enlisted in the military, and I had already graduated from law school. What this meant was that, although he is extremely intelligent, he did not have the same vocabulary that I did – and he spoke what is essentially a slightly different dialect of English than I did, since he was from another part of the country. So sometimes, what I said would go right past him, like I was speaking a foreign language – and sometimes what he said would do the same to me. And because it was Arthur, I took the time to explain what those different words or phrases or idioms meant in what I call plain English, and he did the same. Plain English is the version of English that everyone can understand because it uses simple terms, no idioms or terms of art (words to replace an entire complex concept as a form of shorthand). And it is the version of English that can be used to explain a concept to anyone fluent in the language. Especially in this country, we tend to mistake a lack of comprehension for a lack of intelligence – which is a dangerous fallacy (false belief) that hurts us all. Most people are more than capable of understanding the legal system, but they do not speak the language necessary to do so, and so they need a translator as much as they need a defender, so I aim to be both.
What happens in the criminal justice system has powerful effects on the lives of those involved – at the very least, they deserve to understand what on earth is happening to them. So that is a major goal for me, to be sure that my client is with me every step of the way, they are my partner in their case, making critical decisions based on the best information I can give them. Granted, some of what I am doing is giving an explanation, but a lot of it is translation. Much of what I have to tell people is what they have already been told by the officers or by the judge – but they were told in a jargon they don’t speak. It is why after every court date with a client, I am usually going to spend 15-20 minutes, after the case has been called, explaining he implications and details of what just happened. The court has a lot to get through, a lot more cases than the original design for the system was set up to expect, and so they have to go as quickly as possible to get through everything they need to do that day in time to get home sometime that evening. That means that the judges rarely take the time to explain more than once, if even that once, what exactly the outcome means for this person. They give a general idea, but a thirty second statement isn’t going to ever be able to cover everything you need to know after your case is over. And I never want you to need me again, after your case is over.
As an example of this, any suspended jail is conditioned on what they tell you is “so long as you keep the peace and be of good behavior”. Generally, this is all the court will actually say, without bothering to explain that what this actually means is that the suspended time does not have to be served, but it is hanging over your head for however long they tell you it is suspended. Unless they put you on supervised probation (where you actually have to report to a probation officer), this means you’re on unsupervised probation for that time. If you get arrested for anything during that time – even if you aren’t convicted, if there were actually grounds for the arrest (something like disorderly conduct at a protest with no conviction in the end) they could violate your probation. That would result in you having to go back to court where they would consider imposing some or all of the time that was suspended (rarely all of it on the first go unless what you did was particularly bad). If you don’t break the law or get arrested during the suspension period, then the time never has to be served and at the end of it you are no longer on any form of probation. Basically, what the court is saying is ‘don’t do it again or we’re going to come down on you like a ton of bricks’.
I am somewhat prone to overexplaining as a result of all of this, so I never take offense at someone interrupting me to tell me enough, they get it. The only thing I’m really interested in is being sure you understand what is happening to you – once you’ve got it, we can turn off the translation circuit to discuss strategy and other parts of the case.