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interview: public defender lisa medeiros

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Medeiros, 38, is a defense attorney in private practice in Boston and also takes court appointed cases for indigent clients. Prior to her legal career, she spent nine years in the U.S. Navy, leaving in 1993 with the rank of Lieutenant, Surface Warfare Qualified Unrestricted Line Officer (meaning she was qualified to take command of a ship.)

(Watch a 5:00 video excerpt showing Medeiros working a case.)

How did you get into this career?

When I was in high school, I knew I wanted to be a lawyer, but didn't have the grades. I graduated at the bottom of my class. I didn't have the family support. I didn't have money or any way to get to college. I didn't even know what law school was.

[I grew up in] Framingham, Massachusetts. I wasn't doing well in high school because I was in a really bad family environment. My mother was an alcoholic, my father was absent, I had six sisters. We lived in a low income housing project, cockroach infested. I was [partying] and doing all kinds of things I shouldn't have been doing, when I was in high school. I had my focus on other things, not on school. So I just messed up. But I thought I was smart, and I knew I wanted to do something some day. . . And when I was 17, I enlisted in the Navy because I [had heard about how they would pay for you to ] go to school. . .

I spent almost 5 years enlisted. [I] got out, and then got rejected from all kinds of really crummy colleges, and finally got into a community college. And I did really well with grades, surprisingly to everybody. And then I was able to transfer to UMass, Boston.

. . .

Did the Navy help you in getting through that and getting to where you are now?

Absolutely. You know, I never had a curfew. I could [come home]--and at 12 years old--any time I wanted, because my mother wasn't there. . . I didn't ever have any limits. And when I went in the Navy, I remember the very first day in boot camp, somebody told me to sweep the floor. I'm like, "I'm not sweeping any floor. You can go take a hike." And they took me in this room, and they explained to me, "Look, you can make it hard on yourself, or you can use your head and do what we say and make it easy on yourself." And at that point I said, "Oh, I get it." You know. "They're going to make me feel miserable, so I might as well just go with the program." But that was probably the first time I ever did what somebody told me to do, when I was 17 years old. . . So I think that it gave me a sense of limits and discipline and boundaries and respect maybe for authority, which I didn't have before then. . .

[And it helped me] figure out how to work within a system. With my clients, I often say to them when they get on probation and they're screwing up, "You need to play the game. You're going to make it hard on yourself if you don't do what they tell you to do on probation. So even though you don't want to do it, and you don't think you should have to do it, just do it, for yourself." And that's, I think, what I did. I didn't do it because they were telling me to. I think I realized, "You got to do this to make it easy on yourself." So the Navy was great for me, just what I needed.

You got to take responsibility for what you do.   I hate it when guys are crying going to jail.  It's like, 'You know what?  It caught up with you.' And it also gave me [a sense of self-confidence]. The first job I did was this stupid little job driving these boats in the Philippines. When I was 18 years old, I got sent over there. I was really good at it. And it was a hard job. And all the guys couldn't do it. We moved big barges and ships with our boats, like tugboats. . . I would hook up my little boat to this huge barge, and be able to maneuver it up alongside a ship, perfectly aligned. The guys would have to call my boat to help them with tough jobs when it was windy. It killed them, because they never thought a woman should be there. But that gave me self-esteem for the first time in my life.

How did you end up in law school?

I got out of the Navy in 1985 to go to college. [After I graduated from college at UMass], I still wanted to go to law school. In fact, I tried to apply to law school at that point. But . . . I didn't really have any letters of recommendation from anybody. I didn't have the money. So I turned to the Navy again. And I was an officer on a ship. When I came on that ship, it was a huge, huge issue, because I was the first one there. Four hundred men.

Four hundred men and you the only woman?

Yes, but that was just for a couple of months. They were starting to bring more women on. . . . The year women came on, that was when the Tailhook thing happened, and we were having this huge issue on the ship about how to adjust to women. Because the men were so used to having this little haven, when they went on deployments . . . and now all of a sudden there's women on board, ruining their old boys' network. . . But I thought that the ship handled things pretty well. . . And, I had prejudices too, and needed to deal with them. Being with all men was something I had to adjust to. So I never really felt like they were hostile, or I never felt threatened. Nobody ever grabbed me or anything like that. But we all had to adjust.

And how did you finally get to law school?

I was on the ship for about 3 years. And I really wanted to go to law school. So I applied, and told the captain and the executive officer that I wanted to be considered for an early out, because I had a year left in the Navy, but since I got accepted to law school, I'd need to get out like four months early. And they were so encouraging and so helpful and so supportive. So I got accepted to a great school, University of California at Hastings.

It was so hard, because I always had this big insecurity that I had come from a different place than all these people that had learned how to study. . . So I think that I was so scared that I just wasn't good enough and that I was going to fail. So I just studied all the time. I worked so hard, and I still only graduated in the middle of the class, swimming as hard as I could swim, just going as hard as I could.

And then how did you get into doing defense work?

I always wanted to be a prosecutor. . . So I came back to Massachusetts, not knowing anybody. . . But to be a prosecutor--it's political. I was so frustrated. I applied to every single prosecutor's office. Rejection, rejection, rejection. And I remember going up to Ralph Martin's office, out of my frustration, because I knew that if I could just speak to him, or speak to somebody in charge, I could convince them to hire me. But you can't get past that wall. I remember going up to talk to his secretary and said, "I want to talk to Ralph Martin." And she's like, "Well, what's your name? Do you have an appointment?" "No. My name's Lisa Medeiros." So I remember sitting there, and finally [after a long time] she's like, "Well, he's not going to be able to see you."

Why do you think you couldn't get in the door?

I think it's because who knows Lisa Medeiros? They all have favors that they owe everybody, and that's how you get a job. Somebody calls up and says, "I want you to hire my nephew, Bob Smith," and he gets hired. You know, it's so incredible to me, because I'm looking at my resume with great law school, all the things that I've done, the Navy and all my accomplishments, and they don't even look at me. So it's not on merit. Can't be on merit, because I look at all these young kids who are coming into the prosecutor's office, and they don't have the self-confidence that I have gained over the years . . . But anyway, I was frustrated. So at that point, I remember, I sent out letters just desperately, to small law firms in Boston, saying, "If you'd let me write your pesky little things that you can't pay attention to, if you have these little legal issues"-- but I could not get a job. Nobody would hire me. I was working as a temporary legal secretary through a temp agency, at a law firm in Boston.

I always knew that something would happen, though. . . I sent out this letter, and this one attorney called me and said, "You know, hey, I do criminal defense. If you want to come over, I'll pay you." He paid me $7 an hour. So I went over to work four hours a day, for $7 an hour. I didn't know how I was going to pay my rent. . . And then it turned out I was doing pretty good, and then he said, "Why don't you work full-time?" And then I was making all of $250 a week, before taxes, just scraping by, paying my rent. But I passed the bar. And he suggested that I try to get on the list [for court-appointed defense work], which is the Bar Advocates, because he was on the list. . . So I sent in my resume, and I think because they knew his name, they called me in. And lo and behold, one of the guys . . . was a military man, and so he loved the fact that I was in the Navy. So we swapped war stories, and then I got on the list. And that's how it all started.

And then of course I didn't know what the heck I was doing. I'd just passed the bar five months earlier, and then all of sudden I'm getting all these criminal cases. And I'm like, "Well, what the heck?"

What kinds of cases were they?

District Court stuff. Stuff that I do now. Assault and batteries, and possession of drugs, and receiving stolen property, operating after a suspended license. Nothing too glamorous.

And you have a private practice now too?

Yes. You really can't make a living on the court-appointed stuff. It's hard--$30 an hour, before taxes. And you have to have your own office and your insurance and all that. . . So I take all kinds of cases now. I do family law. I've learned all kinds of law. Personal injury, and sexual harassment cases . . .

How does that compare with prosecutors' salaries?

I think we probably make about the same. Court-appointed attorneys can max out at $54,000 a year. They only let you take a certain amount of hours that would equal $54,000. That's before taxes and before expenses. And the prosecutors now are making . . . $35,000. They used to make $25,000. But they don't have to pay for their office. They have supplies. So I think it works out about the same. They think we're making all kinds of money. . . . The difference is that I can do that court-appointed stuff part-time, and then make all kinds of money on big cases that they can't do. I might get a big personal injury case. I did a wrongful death, and I got $12,000 for doing not too much. So that's where it balances out, I think.

How would you describe your relationship with prosecutor?

I think, really good. With any prosecutor and defense attorney, we're adversaries. And it's really hard to be friends. We don't go out for a beer or anything. I always invite them to my parties, and they never come. But I never expect them to come. But I always invite them. But I go to their goodbye parties and hello parties for new prosecutors in the courts that I work in, in East Boston and Roxbury. But there's never any other defense attorneys there. There's a real division, because it's hard to be friendly with somebody that you're fighting with in court.

Or maybe does it have something to do with the kinds of people who are attracted to the different sides?

Well, no. I think that there's a wide spectrum of people who become prosecutors, and a wide spectrum of people who become defense attorneys. And I think that there are some defense attorneys that are just the rabid ones, that are way out on the left and never can see anything; some prosecutors that are way over on the right. But there are a whole bunch of prosecutors in the middle, and a whole bunch of defense attorneys in the middle, that probably could be friends with each other if they were on the same side. And I think that's where most of the people are. The ones on the left, or way on the right, are the ones that stick out, that you remember. But they're not the majority. . .

Do you feel both sides confront the same constraints? Not enough resources, overwhelming case loads?

I probably would say we have it easier on the defense side. I mean, as far as resources and all that stuff, and caseload, we're all over-burdened. . . But the difference between the prosecutors and my side is that the prosecutors have to answer for everything they do to their boss. When I make a decision about my case, I don't have anyone else to answer to. They're thinking, "All right, if I offer this guy 6 months, my boss is going to have a heart attack." And I think that's a big pressure. So they can't really evaluate the case and deal with the case as they see fit. They have to be worried about what's going to happen when they go back upstairs with their stats. And I think that that's a big difference in the pressure of the job.

So you're more independent.

I have to answer to the client. But you know what? Most of the clients will blindly follow you.

The film shows that there are those cases where it seems hard to get the client to actually make their own decision.

medeiros speaking with a client You're so right. I keep saying, "I'll tell you what your choices are, but it is your decision." And usually I can get them to make a decision. But you know, what they do is, they just want me to make it, most of them. And so what they'll often do is listen to my cues. Even if I'm not conscious of it, probably subconsciously I will tell them in a certain way, and it will come across that I think it's the thing to do. I don't mean to, but probably it comes across.

So how do you balance having your own opinion and advising them of that, and still letting them make their own decisions?

Well, I think for me, what I like to do is, I want them to make their own decisions, but I don't want to be on the hook if they go to jail. I think my job is just to make sure they understood what all their options were, completely. And once I feel comfortable that they understand that, I've explained all the choices and then they made one of those choices, understanding what the possible consequences were, then I'm okay with whatever happens. . . Sometimes I have to make the choice for them. But I try not to do that.

It's a big responsibility.

Yes, but sometimes, too, some of the people are, not that they're not intelligent, but they're so used to people telling them what to do, because that's the society they live in. They don't really make decisions for themselves a lot. Many just have been told what to do all their lives. You go to school. You don't go to school, you go to jail. When you go to jail, you're told what to do. You get your welfare check . . . They don't [often have] jobs. They just are used to people making decisions for them, and they're comfortable with that. I wish that it wasn't like that. And if I can force them to make a decision, I try really hard. But if they can't, then I come to a point where I have to say, "Okay, this is what I think you should do."

Can a client get another attorney, if they don't want you?

No. Judges don't like to do that, and I don't blame them, because you're not supposed to be able to pick your court-appointed attorney. If you want to hire an attorney, you can hire anybody you want, and you can fire them seven days a week, and go hire somebody else. But when the state is providing an attorney--you really need to take what you get.

But that's part of our job, to deal with difficult people. And on the days that I can't deal with them, sometimes what I'll do is, I need to walk away. Because some days, I come in, in a crummy mood, and you're putting me over the edge by giving me a hard time. And some days, I just can't deal with it very well. But when I think about it, it's these people's lives. When I look at their lives, I think, I come home to my little house, and how privileged I am, and I have to understand, they're coming in from some probably crummy apartment like the one that I grew up in, and they're coming to court. And I can say, "Man, their lives are just. . ." It's a whole different dimension. And I know what it's like to live in that world. And it's not nice. And you live it every day. And I'm just there for 8 hours.

Is that what keeps you going--that you can see that?

I think that's part of it. I think that I can really understand. I would be in a crummy mood if I was coming to court for a case. Their problems are so great. I mean, a lot of them have AIDS and drug addictions and children who don't live with them, and then they come in for this case where they might go to jail. And so, no wonder they're angry. And they're angry at me because I'm the system. And I can understand that.

[And] you know what? They're not all like that. Some of them are really, really sweet people. And not often do I get a "thank you," but once in a while, somebody will call me up and say, "I just wanted to thank you. You did such a good job." And I'll think, wow! I've gotten cards, little tiny gifts, or a little something, you know, saying the impact that I made on their lives, or how important it was to them because they knew I cared. That keeps me going. So maybe, again like the stereotypes, the ones that you pay attention to are the ones that are making you angry because they're being really mean, but probably 90% of them are nice people, just in a bad situation.

What do you think about the tv legal dramas, like Law and Order and The Practice? Do you watch those shows? Do any of the practicing lawyers?

No, I don't. Yes, most lawyers do. And they always say, "Oh, did you see The Practice last night, or Ally McBeal?" One of the guys calls always calls me Ally McBeal, over at the courthouse. He doesn't call me anything else. And I don't even know what he's talking about. All I know is, she weighs about 100 pounds less than me. That's all I know. But yes, they all watch it.

Do you think it's unrealistic?

Partially. I just don't like to watch courtroom shows outside of work because it reminds me of work. It makes me think like, "I should have filed that motion," or "I should have done this," or "I should have done that." It just gets me going with my little anxieties. So I think that's part of the reason why I don't them. But I think they're pretty popular among the lawyers.

On all those shows it seems that the defense attorney never wants to know if the person is guilty. Is that true? Do you want to know if your clients did what they're charged with?

The answer to that is really going to strike you funny, but I don't care. And let me tell you why I don't care. . . I think at first, when I first started doing this job, I wanted to know if they were guilty or innocent. But then I came to realize that it doesn't matter to me, because I'm not the judge. My job is not to judge them and to decide if they're innocent or guilty. Because they can tell me their story all day long, and they might sound as guilty as sin, but you know what? They might not be. . . So if I were to adopt that belief and say, "Well, he must be guilty," then I think that I would present a different defense. So what I do is, I look at the case and think, "How can I beat the case?" It doesn't matter if he did it or not. How can I beat this case? And so when I size up a case, sometimes I don't even want to hear the client's side, because what I got to do is just beat the police report, basically. Since the police are going to say this, I have to find the way to show that what they're saying, or what they thought they saw, isn't what really happened. And so a lot of times the client's story doesn't help me.

Most of them did it. That's the hard, cold truth. If they're in the system, probably most of them did something close to what they're accused of. And a lot of times too, if you really do listen to all the stories, what the police say, what the victims say, what the defendants say, the truth is somewhere in the middle of that. It's really not what the police say they think that they saw, because people see things through their own eyes. You know how they say eyewitnesses' accounts can be completely different? Same person sees something and they're all giving different views? And that's just the police report and the defendant's story. Somewhere in between is what happened. But my job is just to win. But part of it's just about me, too. I like to win. And I just don't care if they did it or not.

But there must be some instances where, just as a human being, if it's something particularly heinous, you must be curious: Did this person really do this horrible thing?

Well, if I get to that point--and there was one case that I turned away--that I have to decide, did this person do this horrible thing, then I'm afraid that I can't represent them to the best of my ability. And the person that I turned away was accused of sexually molesting his daughter. And when he told me what he had done, he described it to me, and then told me he didn't see why it was a crime. And after speaking to him, I thought, "There is no way I can represent this man. It just is too much for me." I think it was okay for me to represent him until the point where he told me he just didn't understand why it was a crime. And there's a chance I could have gotten him set free. I don't really know because I said, "I just can't take this case," because I was disturbed. I was really disturbed by it.

medeiros in court I have represented a couple of people accused of rape, but I really didn't think they did it. And maybe a part of me makes me believe that, to represent them. I don't know. But I didn't think these people did it, and I was able to represent them, and everything turned out okay. So maybe when I get into bigger cases, I might have more of a conflict. But you know, I'm mostly practicing in the District Court, where most of my clients are [charged with] drug [offenses]. And it's not a big deal to me if someone's shooting crack into their arm or whatever they're doing. I don't care. And it's all about trying to get them another chance, and maybe they'll turn around, maybe not. Maybe they'll pick up another case and go to jail on somebody else's time. But these kind of crimes aren't things that I just hate. I see them as victims, the people I represent right now. . .

What is the balance of your caseload, in terms of court-appointed cases and private work?

It varies. I can regulate it. When I have a lot of private stuff, I can cut down on the court-appointed by taking less duty days. And when I'm lean on the private stuff, I'll take more court-appointed. So right now, last month I was lean on the private stuff. This year has been really good for me with private, so I was doing 50-50. But just the last month, all of a sudden all my private cases are wrapping up and I haven't got anything new. So now I'm trying to pick up more court-appointed. Maybe it's 75-20 now.

So you'd rather do private work?

I never want to give up the court-appointed stuff. If I could make a living on the court-appointed stuff, if I could really pay my bills and my loans and everything, that's what I would do. I wouldn't do another thing. Because I like the people. I like the work. I like the pace.

But isn't it similar work?

Well, no. When I talk about my private stuff, a lot of it is not criminal. It's family law, divorces, child custody, discrimination, sexual harassment, personal injury, car accidents, contract work, all kinds of lawsuits . . . I get some private criminal [work], but you know what? I really think that there's a prejudice. Some people would disagree with me, but I think there's a prejudice in favor of the big-time [lawyers], especially among people that are dealing drugs, like a lot of money. They want a white male attorney with a downtown office. And that's who they think is going to get them off. So they're not coming to me.

Do you think that's a fair prejudice?

No, because I think I would do as good a job as they could. Absolutely. I know I could. And probably better. . . But I get some interesting cases, like assault with intent to murder. I get some referrals for those kind of cases. And they don't seem to mind that I'm a woman. As long as somebody refers me to them, then they feel comfortable. But I can't get the traffickers, the drug traffickers. I think they want the white, male, downtown lawyers. I think that's the word on the street.

Do you feel very over-worked?

No, because I can really cut corners. I can handle a case one way or handle it another way, and still handle it very, very competently, if I don't file a zillion motions, and then if I do file a zillion motions.

When do you decide how much work you're comfortable with?

I think that it all happens as it happens. Because sometimes I'd love to do more on a case but I just simply can't. Like the jury trial where the judge says, "Shouldn't you have done this?" Well, yeah, I should have, and I just couldn't. So sometimes you just can't do things. I would like to prepare for my direct examination or my opening, but I can't because I've got three motions to suppress the day before. So I guess the way that I decide is how busy I am, but also [it depends on what I think my chances are]. Like I have a pretty good trial that's going to happen on Tuesday. I'm going to go to the office tonight about 5:00, and I'm going to work on that, because I think it's going to happen, and I think I can win it. I guess, if I think that there's a chance, then I'm going to give it more work. . .

In terms of the court-appointed cases, how often would you say you end up pleading cases out?

Oh, I'd say 95%. No, let me say less, because a lot of dismissals happen too. When I was thinking about cases that go to trial, probably 5% to 10% actually go to trial. But you get a lot of dismissals, for whatever reasons. You know, cops don't show up, or you win a motion, or something like that. So maybe I plead out, maybe I would say 60%.

What are the factors that make you plead?

Well, if you've got a case that you're just not going to win. If I got a case where the cops saw my guy pounding in the face of his girlfriend, and she's going to testify against him with her broken nose, and the cops are going to say, "Yeah, I saw him do that," and then they're going to introduce the medical records, and the DA's offering him 18 months, then why take that to trial and risk two years? So it depends on the case, if you've got a loser. And also, sometimes there's a situation where they've got a long record and they're on probation in another court. And maybe the case isn't so solid, but if you plead this one out, you can work it with the other case so that they're guaranteed no jail time. Basically you just want to keep them out of jail. Most of the guys that [I'm working with], you just want to keep them out of jail. So you just finagle. . .

Is there advice you'd want to give to young lawyers?

Oh, my gosh, no. Definitely not. I wouldn't think anybody would want to operate the way that I do.

Why?

Because I think that the way that I operate is kind of fly-by-night. I don't really see myself as being very proficient, I just kind of am able to get through it, and get through it pretty well, for some reason. But I think it's partially because of my personality, the whole combination of who I am. So for me to give advice, I wouldn't think anybody should operate like this. . .

But it works for you.

It works for me. That would actually be a great piece of advice. You can't adopt anyone else's style. When I see lawyers trying, especially during an opening or a closing, somebody that's soft-spoken trying to yell, you can't do that. You have to find your own style, and you have to believe in yourself and operate from that perspective. Don't ever try to do anyone else's style.

Did it take you a while to develop a style, or to become comfortable?

No. Well, I was always so petrified, I couldn't even speak in court. I really had a problem with public speaking when I first started this job. I would sit there and say, "When they call your name, you have to get up. You have to get up. Don't be frozen." I thought I'd be frozen in the seat. And I still get scared now. But I think that part of the thing that I had going for me was that I had a certain presence about me, or I exuded a presence even though I wasn't feeling it. I think I'm very aggressive, and I think that part of my style is that I exude this confidence that I may not be feeling, but that I think other people around me think, "Hey, she must be saying something that's true, because look at how she's saying it." So I think that was just a natural thing that maybe came from my being an officer in the Navy, because they talk about military bearing all the time, and they make you stand up straight and walk a certain way and talk a certain way.

And I call judges "sir." Some judges say, "You make me feel old," but I do that because I was so trained at such a young age. And I think that part of it is, I fall into that military kind of persona. So I think that's where my style comes from.

How do you see your career evolving?

See, it's so hard for me, because it took me 17 years to get from that point when I was in high school to the point when I graduated law school. Seventeen years. . . . I've changed careers and changed positions and places where I've lived, so much in my life. I really can't see myself doing this for another five years. But the problem is that I always had this vision of going to law school, and I always had this focus, and that was my goal. Suddenly I reached it, and my vision stopped. So where do I go from here? I don't know. In five years, I'd like to be doing something else.

Not law? Or just not this criminal trial stuff?

Probably not court-appointed stuff. I hate to say it because it makes me a little sad, because this has really been so enjoyable. But I think I'd be sadder if I were still doing this in five years.

Because you'd be burnt out, or because you just would feel like you weren't progressing?

Both. When I first started this court-appointed stuff in the District Court, I was petrified. I didn't know what I was doing. I was up all hours. Now I can have a jury trial and I can walk in there without even reading the police report, and I can do a pretty good job. I mean, you don't want to do that. That's not what you should do. But it's just, I kind of got it. I got it now.

I need to be challenged a little bit more, because when I'm not challenged, I'm not investing as much of myself into it, and they're not getting as much benefit, whoever I'm working with. But there's got to be something else, I hope, but I just have no vision yet.

Would you ever want to be a DA?

. . . I could. I'm not sure if I would want to at this point, only because I really have realized, since being on this side, that this is where I needed to be. My mind is probably more of a prosecutor's mind.

What is that?

You got to take responsibility for what you do. If you're going to go out there and play the game, then when it comes time to pay the price, you got to stand up to the plate. You know, I hate it when these guys are crying when they're going to jail. It's like, "You know what? It caught up with you." And I know that I've been in certain positions in my life where I've had to pay the price for things that I've done. And I did it like a grown woman. And I think that that's what you have to do. You have to pay the price and accept the consequences for things that happen. And I think that's what a prosecutor's job is, a lot of times. So I could definitely be a prosecutor. But I [also] realize that I like to have the freedom and my own individual thought process and ability to be able to make decisions. . . . I don't want some boss telling me, "Well, you know what? You shouldn't have given him 6 months on that one." I say, "But you know, I evaluated the case, and I know what I did was right." That would be a problem for me. So I don't know what's going to happen, but I really hope that I make some changes. And I'm trying to. . .

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