The Need to Educate the Nonlegal Public About Lawyers and the Legal System

Gavel and BenchJust over fourteen months have passed since I first appeared in a Milwaukee County courtroom as a newly minted (Marquette) lawyer. Rolling the clock back another two and a half years, I recall my first few days as a law student. In all, I’m nearly four years into what I hope will be a long and eventful career in the law.

Over these last four years—this last year, in particular—I’ve found myself often making the same two observations. Though I don’t suspect that either of my observations are especially unique, both are surely the product of spending so many of my days in and around our state’s most active courthouse.

The first of these observations is one I began to consider very early on during my time at Marquette: we (society in general, but lawyers and others inside the legal system more specifically) must do more to educate and inform all those individuals who too often lack even the most rudimentary understanding of what it means to be a nation of laws.

Because my office prosecutes Milwaukee County ordinance violations in addition to state crimes arising in Milwaukee County, I often find myself litigating citations with pro se defendants (the “civil Gideon” discussion is one best saved for another day). It is during these interactions that I am most often reminded of the difficulties too many individuals face any time they become involved in even the most (relatively) inconsequential contacts within our legal system.

Through my work, I’ve met very intelligent and well-educated individuals who struggle to demonstrate any level of comfort or familiarity with our legal system. Clearly, these individuals are capable of understanding; unfortunately, though, we have systematically failed to provide anything more than a modicum of foundational education in the law for nonlawyers.

Even closer to home have I been reminded of just how little those around us know about what it is we do as lawyers. Since accepting my appointment as an Assistant District Attorney last February, I find myself explaining to friends and family the very nature of my work as a prosecutor far more often than I would ever care to admit.

I recall at least two separate occasions when I’ve been asked, “So, do you like defending bad guys?” Though there are arguably a few things wrong with such a question (not the least of which is the implication that anyone requiring criminal defense is a “bad guy”), we’ll focus on the fact that at least twice I’ve found myself explaining to people I personally know the most fundamental differences that define the varied roles of prosecutors and defense attorneys.

We need only turn to any social media website for a mere moment to find countless examples of our failure to educate and inform the nonlegal public at large. Commenters on these sites rarely, if ever, demonstrate any level of understanding as it would relate to our legal system. Though I’m sure some of these commenters have simply chosen to demonstrate some level of ignorance in order to advance some personal agenda, the unfortunate truth, again, is that there are too many individuals who proceed through life never knowing even the most foundational principles of the very institutions that most impact their lives.

We must do more to change this narrative. Admittedly, I’ve not offered even a single solution here. I would propose, however, that fundamental changes may be required to address what I’ve suggested is such a pervasive problem and invite anyone reading this to join me in furthering this discussion.




This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Irene Parthum

    You are a valued member of the Milwaukee DA’s Office “family,” and I greatly enjoyed being on a general crimes team with you last summer, as you started your career. Your observations are very true about the lack of knowledge of the system and our functions in it as prosecutors and defense attorneys. I would note that even those trained as attorneys, but not practicing criminal law, can come into court as victims, jurors, and even defendants, and have no idea what is going on. That’s why I encourage you to hang in there as a career prosecutor, because we need experienced but thoughtful ADAs to be patient and fair with those who are intimidated by, or unfamiliar with, the system. Thanks for your hard work and service.

    1. Kelly Joy

      I could us someone to take a case pro-bono. Divorce.

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