The Public Defender Bug

Why 19 years in the PD’s office didn’t burn out Lauri Brenner

Published in 2019 Southern California Super Lawyers — February 2019

As a kid, Lauri Brenner loved hanging out with her father, Bob, a prominent personal injury attorney, as he worked cases. She even liked visiting clients with him in the hospital.

“I would wait in the shadows,” she recalls. “I basically planned on becoming a lawyer since fifth grade. Not that I knew what it meant to be a lawyer other than, you know, I liked my dad’s office building. He’d drive me in the summer to a site inspection and we would have hard hats on. ... I just thought the things that he was doing seemed cool.”

Only recently did she go into private practice. “I got the public defender bug,” she says. “I was just very inspired by them.”

It began with an internship at the Boulder Public Defender’s office as an undergrad, then continued at the San Diego County Public Defender’s Office during law school. Six months after graduation, she got a call from LA Public Defender Michael Judge, offering her a job if she could show up the following Monday. She stayed 19 years. 

Her voice catches when she talks about some of the clients who passed through her office. 

There was the single-dad Vietnam vet whose child was born with a birth defect because of his exposure to Agent Orange, and who was caught selling a small amount of drugs to an undercover agent. Since it was a sales offense, he was excluded from drug court, which offered a rehab program in lieu of jail time. He faced six to 10 years in prison.

At 18, he’d landed a basketball scholarship to a big school. Instead he was sent to Vietnam, where his platoon was fired on almost as soon as he arrived. The soldier next to him had his head shot off. For the next year, Brenner says, their platoon frequently used cocaine and heroin.

“I asked him, ‘Why would you take those drugs when you were an athlete?’” she says. “His response was, ‘We didn’t think we were coming back. We all thought we’d die there.’ ... When he came back, he was addicted.”

At the DA’s office, Brenner made a passionate pitch. “I remember having tears in my eyes, which I can still feel right now, because he had made such an impression on me.” The DA relented and let her client into the drug court program. A year later, Brenner attended his graduation.

Then there was the gang member who was sitting in the back seat of a car during a drive-by shooting.

“I did not view him as a hardcore gang member, but instead a grown child whose parents were nonexistent,” she says. “At age 7, he was attacked, beaten, [had his] nose broken by older gang members while walking home from school.”

She says her client was always respectful and concerned about her well-being: “[He] even offered to delay his trial for seven months while I went out on maternity leave so that I could represent him at trial. We tried the case when I was eight months pregnant.”

The driver and front-seat passenger were convicted; Brenner’s client was let off. A year later, his girlfriend called with sad news: He had been killed in another drive-by shooting—probably in retaliation for the first shooting.

“This kid could have been a productive member of society had he been born into different circumstances,” Brenner says. “There were just so many compelling stories that were both heartbreaking and a constant reminder of how lucky I am.”

 

It wasn’t burnout or disenchantment that led her into private practice. “I loved being a public defender,” she says. “It’s not just a job. It’s really a mindset.”

But, she says, “You start thinking about the rest of your life. ... Is it in some way limiting to have the same job since you were 26 years old?”

Plus she was about to go back to death-penalty work, which, she says, is “very heavy on the soul.” 

An old friend of her father’s, personal injury attorney Michael Alder, offered her the opportunity three years ago. “Not only did I shock myself by making this decision, I think it was very surprising for everyone in the [PD’s] office. I’m quite sure that I was viewed by most, if not all, as a lifer.”

Coming up to speed on a new set of civil-side rules and procedures was challenging, she admits, but she credits the staff at AlderLaw with helping her. One thing she didn’t need help with? “I’m a litigator,” she says. “I understand how trials work.”

In every trial, Brenner says, lawyers must adjust to the personalities of the judge, opposing counsel and clerks. PDs in particular, she says, must be attuned to “every aspect of that to advocate the most effectively for your client, who is, you know, not a popular person. … I think that it makes you, at the end of it—when you’ve done it for a number of years—confident and somewhat fearless.

“[So] when I came over to the civil side and was asked, ‘Oh, hey, do you want to jump onto, let’s say, an employment trial next week?’ ‘Sure. I don’t know anything about employment law, but I will figure it out.’”

Brenner notes that lawyers coming up on the civil side seldom get the courtroom experience of a public attorney. “The trial experience that you get, whether you’re a prosecutor or a defense attorney, you can never match it in the private sector,” she says. “It’s a skill set that is necessary, it’s sought after, and, for lack of a better term, hopefully will make you more badass on the civil side.”

So would she recommend young attorneys head to the PD or prosecutor’s office? Yes, she says, but with a caveat.

“I would hate for someone to go there just because they’re trying to get trials but don’t really feel the level of dedication and advocacy that is necessary to do that kind of job,” she says. “If you’re not really interested in being a public defender, or even a prosecutor—if that’s not where your heart lies—it’s going to be challenging for you to get up every day.

“Even if your client has committed the crime, there’s a human being there,” she adds. “You uncover really terrible abuse—childhood abuse, emotional abuse, physical abuse, drug abuse, mental illness, and just a really tragic set of events that makes it such that I personally couldn’t sit in judgment of my client, which is what allowed me to do the job.

“Ultimately, I view myself, I think, as a public defender still.”

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