Yale Law School

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Jaclyn Frankfurt, JD '86

Deputy Chief—Appellate Division,
Public Defender Service for the District of Columbia
Washington, DC

I have been a public defender for over twenty years. I guess I have voted with my feet—I have never left because I cannot contemplate a job I would rather do. My work is intellectually stimulating, desperately important, and ever-changing. And I am lucky enough to be surrounded by engaged, talented, like-minded people. Some of my classmates from law school feel this passionate about the work they do, but not many.

After clerking, I started my legal career as a Georgetown Prettyman Fellow and then went to work as a trial lawyer at the Public Defender Service for the District of Columbia. Both jobs are luxurious by public defense standards. Luxurious not in the traditional sense—neither the offices nor the salaries come anywhere close to what colleagues in the private sector experience—but luxurious because caseloads are manageable (by public defender standards), lawyers have the full support of the organization’s leadership to act as zealous advocates for their clients, and lawyers are expected, encouraged, and trained to provide the quality of representation— including expert services—that clients would have received had they been able to afford the highest priced attorney. I am in awe of my colleagues who took their skills and went to places such as Georgia and Alabama, Louisiana and Texas, where the situations are quite different, to say the least.

I spent about six years as a trial lawyer before switching to appellate work. As a trial lawyer, I loved the fact that I spent my days not merely with other lawyers in offices and libraries (I date myself), but interacting with clients and witnesses in court, at the local jail, and in neighborhoods of the city that others rarely visit. I loved being in the courtroom—a place most “litigators” never see. And I tolerated being asked at social events, “how can you represent those people,” because representing indigent clients charged with criminal offenses seemed to me then, and now, to be the most important work I could do.

I eventually shifted to appellate work, where the work is different but, for me, equally rewarding. The legal issues we tackle are complex and rarely repetitive, perhaps because as lawyers and writers we understand the power of facts, which are never the same. If our narrative of unfairness is not persuasive to our (judicial) reader, our likelihood of success is low. I don’t get the day-to-day client interaction that I used to have, but my work remains entirely client-focused. As public defenders we are not impact litigators; our strategies are entirely guided by our client’s goals. Occasionally as a byproduct of our client-centered representation we have a broader impact—either in the development of some good case law, or, perhaps more critically, in instilling in the prosecutors the sense that they are being closely monitored. Public defenders have a healthy distrust of the government—it is most probably a job qualification, and most definitely a byproduct of the work we do. Oh, and often we win—both in the traditional sense, with not guilties and reversals, and in the less traditional, when our clients are appreciative of the quality of representation they received, no matter the outcome.