What It Means to Be a Defense Lawyer – Tricia Shields
Last fall, Allen Smith asked a number of us to write a column about what it means to be a defense attorney for The Resource. When I sat down to write my contribution, I reread the previous submissions of my friends. Some of their pieces recounted fond memories, some told funny war stories, and all were full of the wisdom of great lawyers. I have deep respect and affection for each of the authors, and it was joy to read what they shared with us. I am happy to have this chance to add my perspective.
Having done this for a lot of years, I now see the role is a defense attorney as similar to the role of a good parent. Our job is to advise and guide, to listen and to care. While our clients’ fights aren’t our fights, they often feel like they are. We speak for them, fight for them and protect them as best we can. We have the responsibility to tell them the truth, especially when it’s a hard truth, and they don’t want to hear it. And we sometimes stand with them in the most difficult times of their lives.
Early in my career, of course, I usually handled smaller matters representing folks who considered their case to be the insurance company’s problem, and me an annoyance. I learned the value of patience and persistence in those cases. (“Yes sir, you really do have to help me answer these nosey interrogatories.”) I was also lucky enough spent several years as second or third chair, junior to the best trial lawyer that I know and sometimes to a more experienced paralegal, in more significant and complex cases. I figured out early on what an incredible opportunity I had been granted, and I tried to learn everything I could from it.
Those first experiences prepared me, as they do all of us, for the greater responsibilities to come. It has been my honor to represent people in all kinds of circumstances – some who were innocent of the allegations against them, and some who had made terrible mistakes with terrible consequences. Some are terrified, worried, or ashamed. Being a defense lawyer means giving all of your clients, regardless of what they have done, guidance, compassion, and the best defense you are able to provide.
Being a defense lawyer means working very hard. I have come to accept that our work week will never be forty hours, and that everything always takes longer than I think it should. I have also come to learn that even though working on weekends is a special kind of misery, time spent in preparation is never a waste.
In fighting for my clients, I have found that it is rarely necessary to fight with the lawyer on the other side, and it is never necessary to be unkind. That does not mean, of course, that we let anyone push us around or take advantage of us. We can be firm in our position, without, as my grandmother used to be say, “acting ugly.” One of the best things about practicing in a community like ours, where people are friendly and have good manners, is that we can be friends with our opponents.
Here in North Carolina, being a defense lawyer also means that we are friends with our colleagues in other firms, who do the same kind of work that we do. I hear that in some parts of the country, defense lawyers consider each other to be competitors for clients. Here, however, thanks to the culture of the NCADA, we are members of a supportive community. This is where I learned how to take expert depositions, how to pick a jury, and about all about the new decisions of our appellate courts. This is where I was given an opportunity to lead, and where I’ve had unbelievable support as I’ve pursued my dreams. This is where I made some of my closest friends. This is where I found my law firm home.
When I joined a defense firm 34 years ago, I had no way of knowing where it would lead. I am grateful for this journey, and all the friends that I have made along the way.