Kathy Cima works in a plain office, wears plain clothes, talks quietly and plainly. But her job is anything but plain. She is a public defender in Minneapolis. Before this, she worked ten years as a civil lawyer. She enjoys arguing about stuff that actually matters now… not when and where you are allowed to go to the restroom.
Interview: How To Become a Public Defender
It’s a real conflict oriented job, I suppose. There’s a lot of work. A lot of people have used it to get to something else. They didn’t intend to be here when they went to law school. They intended to practice, but they realized it’s just a…it can get very hostile.
I was in private practice for ten years. I quit that because you just look across the table and you see people who’ve been there for twenty, thirty years and they just look miserable.
So why do you think they stick with it for so long?
Those guys, it’s the money. And they aren’t happy. You can imagine spending all day fighting over…the things you fight over in civil is unbelievable. But this isn’t civil. This is working with kids and is a lot more fun.
We were talking with Christian earlier about why people stay as a public defender for so long, as opposed to going to a firm and staying there for awhile with the salary. Why do you think people stay in public defending?
That’s a good question. I stay because it’s a fun job. It’s a new adventure every day. It’s very new. You have six days a month where you pick up new cases. Six, maybe three or four. But you pick up new cases and you don’t know what you’re going to get that day. It could be anything. You go and it’s a new file. You’ve seen the charge a hundred times before and you talk to your client, and you’ve never met a kid like that before. They’re all usually different. So it’s all kind of fun.
What is it you do exactly?
I work with kids when they get charged with crimes. That’s part of the job. The other part is working with parents when the county comes in and takes their kids away and they want them back. We represent the parents to try to get them back.
So on the opposite end of the spectrum, a lot of people stay in public defending, but there’s also a high burnout rate. What’s the difference between the people that burn out and the people that stay in it?
I don’t think there’s a higher burnout rate in public defense than there is in general law. But I think general law has a high burnout rate because you’re in conflict a lot. A lot of people love that, but that’s hard to maintain conflict for so long.
What do you mean by conflict?
When you’re in civil practice, there isn’t anything you don’t argue about. For example, if you’re sitting in that position and someone needs to use the restroom, you argue about that. About whether it’s time to go to the restroom. About which floor they should go to the restroom. I mean, you argue about anything and everything. You pull transcripts sometimes and you’ll be amazed at what gets argued sometimes.
One time I had a case that was in the newspaper. A lot of the depositions got exposed to the public. The journalists couldn’t believe what we were arguing about. One kid was being deposed for twenty-seven days. It was amazing. We spent a lot of time arguing about every single break we took over those twenty-seven days.
So does that spill over into your normal life?
You try not to. But when you have to wake up knowing it’s going to be another day of fighting about everything…when you first start as a lawyer it is fun. Because you like to argue about everything. So you get to argue everything. But then after awhile, you’re like, oh man, I already had that argument a hundred times. I don’t need it one more time.
But you have to. Every client deserves for you to be as fresh as you were on the first one.
Is there a way to maintain that excitement?
Law is different. In our job, we meet these kids and most of the kids, you read these reports every day on them. These are four different reports I got yesterday just on my cases yesterday. I had four kids that were unable to understand what was going on. They got into a fight, or they ended up doing something stupid and ended up going to court.
Well, they don’t know what’s going on in the real world. Then you bring them into court and read them all their rights- they can’t quite get them.
You feel for these kids. Every time you pick up a case, it’s not just a fact set or legal issues. It’s about a kid. It’s about a family. Something went wrong, but are you going to exasperate the problem and make it worse for the kid and society as a whole? Or are you going to try make it better? Make this kid’s life just slightly better. And see if there’s a way you can turn it around and not let them take the consequences for something they shouldn’t do.
Because right now kids are just getting creamed. They get in trouble and they don’t have the rights adults have. They don’t have jury trials. They’re not nearly as smart or stupid, but they get in just as much trouble as the adults.
And it’s just very interesting. You deal with these very interesting fact sets. A lot of it, you’re not dealing too deep. It’s not like in civil work where you have one case going for five years. How tedious does that get? In this job you don’t have a case going for five years. Five months is a long time to keep something going.
That’s the excitement you have. An invested interest in your clients?
Yeah. And the facts are interesting. Someone goes out and steals a car. It’s kind of interesting to see how they got from these kids who are in grade school, to stealing a car. Getting into someone’s car and figuring out whether they knew it was stolen or how it’s done. It’s interesting.
Is it hard with this invested interest in your clients, and really caring for them and making a difference, is it hard to separate yourself from that working life and going back to your personal life? Is there a separation? Is there a line drawn between that?
A huge line. I mean it’s huge. When you have kids, you don’t want them to end up being kids you represent. You sometimes try not to see your parenting skills in the parents of the kids that end up in here. You try to separate that out. You want to make sure your child doesn’t end up as one of your clients.
If there was any advice that you could go back and tell yourself at 22 years old, what would you say to your 22 year old self?
That’s a really good point. When I went to law school, the first thing they said to us in our opening was to make a back up disk of who you are now because you won’t be the same person when you finish law school. That’s really true.
I don’t know what I would say. I mean, this is really, and a humorous point, this is the job I always wanted. From when I was younger. I was in a courtroom once and watched it go on. If you have ever spent any time in an arraignment court in Chicago, it’s very interesting. Things are going on and you just get to watch. It’s a very interesting place to be. So that’s what I wanted to do.
My first job was working in Chicago in this same job. Dealing with juveniles as a law clerk. I loved it. So I’d say that you should do what you want to do and that’s it. If you want to enjoy your job.
The one advice I got from someone is that you become what you do over time. If you do it too long. If you’re not doing what you want to do, you become a little more miserable. Or material things will fill up the emptiness in your otherwise professional life if you’re not happy doing that. If you’re happy with what you’re doing, it does spread out.
How long did it take you to get to the job you really wanted?
I had jobs I liked all along for different reasons. But I finished law school in ’92, and I got this job in ’01. So I’d say nine years after law school.