Through the Looking Glass or What the Fortune Teller Taught Me About Burnout

Once upon a time, in the days after Young Norm had discovered girls but before girls had discovered Young Norm, a carnival came to a certain small town in California.

Between the henna tattoo tent and the tent that celebrated local history through diorama projects lay the tent of a fortune teller. She clambered from her tent at the sight of impressionable prospects and offered to tell our futures. She then noted the quizzical eyebrow raise that I gave her.

“I know you think I’m full of shit,” she mumbled while holding a Camel between her gums.

Indeed, I did think that she was full of shit. And at that moment, I knew her to be a true seer so I handed her 90 minutes of fast-food wages and gazed into her crystal ball. The results were strangely telling.

I saw the rewards of a college graduation. My bachelors in liberal arts and complete lack of familiarity with the “real world” had crafted me into either the world’s most average high school teacher or the world’s most overqualified barrista.

I then saw the rewards of an even higher education, law school, as a smug over-achiever filled with false confidence believing the economy would stop sucking once I earned a JD.

I heard the sighs of relief from my family; He’s a lawyer now! He’s going to go work for the county defending criminals! Not only does he get to be a lawyer like the kind you see on TV, but he also has a stable government job and a constructive outlet for those anarchist tendencies that used to get Young Norm into so much trouble.

Fast forward to my second felony trial tour. My boss is giving me serious felony cases now, ones I can’t talk about in polite company. Gone are the days when I represented “dudes” who received “child porn” under the guise of boob shots from their 17-year-old girlfriend. Now, I’m receiving recorded interviews where a 7-year-old is calling my client “the bad man” before telling police what he did to her. I’m defending kids who stab each other for wearing the wrong colors in the wrong neighborhood. They’re charged as adults and getting sentenced to the very prison system that created California’s current street gang problem.

I see the effects of the systemic underfunding of public education in my student loan bills; they persist even though I pay more on them each month than my rent. Yes, I still rent. My father, with only a high school diploma, was choosing a second, “more suitable” home by my age.

At least my wife still suits me just fine.

I see myself doing a closing argument. I burnished my presentation to a professional shine over the course of a semi-sleepless weekend, nursing my sanity with coffee and encouragement from loved ones. I see the prosecutor stumble-fucking his way through his closing and then his rebuttal, lacking any sort of polish, logic, or reference to actual witness testimony but containing more than enough fear-mongering and judgmental outrage to get him a win. My “guilty” rate soon surpasses that of almost any district attorney.

I see row upon row of prison cells. Cells in Soledad, Folsom, Kern, and Pelican Bay filled with men who had at least one thing in common: I was their last lawyer.

After twenty years I catch a glimpse of retirement. The voters had become angry that the private sector had busted their unions, liquidated their private pensions, and relocated manufacturing and production to “more efficient” economies. They have grown bitter at those who decided to work for the government, now jealous of a salary that was once less than half the private sector equivalent. I am now devoid of any hope the economy will ever stop sucking. I see myself not being able to give my grandchildren the kinds of Christmases my own grandparents gave to me.

“Jesus,” the fortune teller cackles after lighting another cigarette and returning the pack to her bra, “Is that really what you want?”

Actually, this story never happened. I never paid for a fortune teller, and she gave me no preview of the doubts and worries that I now have in the middle phase of my adulthood. The visions are real, but the timing is very recent.

I am currently in the midst of my first truly serious felony trial tour. And so many of my cases cannot resolve, for a variety of reasons. Client is crazy. DA is insufferable. And sometimes my client just didn’t do it.

And so I set these cases for trial, often without waiving time, as I gain nothing by postponing the inevitable. New cases come in continuously, and so the cases that cannot be settled must be tried as soon as possible simply to reduce my caseload.

And in this context, I see how burnout comes upon a public defender. Despite my most well-meaning, competent efforts, and despite that I typically outclass the average district attorney, my client goes down like a brick. Some days, I feel like all I’ll have to show for it upon retirement is a sizable section of the bloated prison population that had me as their lawyer at some point in time.

So is this really what I want? Courtroom battle still carries a thrill that, I think, leaves me with more energy than it takes. My family and loved ones are always there. And I have a deep, abiding belief that service to one’s community is in one’s own best interest.

And convincing twelve random people of any given client’s innocence is easier for me than convincing a potential employer (and myself) that I would rather review contracts at my desk for 90 hours a week.

Respectfully submitted,

Norm DeGuerre

4 thoughts on “Through the Looking Glass or What the Fortune Teller Taught Me About Burnout

  1. My day job is in IT support in higher ed. Tech for five years, now a manager for five years. This field typically burns people out in three. The challenges are similar, if not as life-impacting: heavy workload, an often-losing battle with limited resources, clients who are almost never grateful. I ran of ability to rationalize staying here three years ago. Inertia’s a bitch, though.

    *tips drink to you* I hope you never lose your ability to see through the burn out to something that makes it worthwhile.

    1. “I hope you never lose your ability to see through the burn out to something that makes it worthwhile.”

      That makes two of us. I honestly think that the rationalizations will always be there, because I think that there will always be good reasons to stick with it. You’re totally right about the nature of burnout being truly universal.

  2. Man, if that’s where your burnout comes from you’ve got it easy. Haven’t you ever had a case where the judge made himself your client’s accuser’s best friend, offered them his phone number and told them to call him, not the police, if things ever seemed amiss? Haven’t you had the DA shout at a judge and make him apologize for making the right call and reverse himself?

    If anything ever makes me give this business up, it’ll be watching the Bill of Rights get used as toilet paper by the local executive and judiciary and realizing that no matter what I do, the slide into totalitarianism is unavoidable.

    1. “Even if I knew that tomorrow the world would go to pieces, I would still plant my apple tree.”
      -Martin Luther

      You’ve seen the system at its very worst. You have my kindest regards.

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