To every client the effective assistance of counsel, and not some pale pretense of that right

From graduating Harvard Law in 1974 up to his intended retirement at the end of July 2010, Bill Leahy has dedicated his professional life to the representation of indigent people.  For 19 years he has been at the helm of the entire Massachusetts public defense system -- his official title is Chief Counsel of the Committee for Public Counsel Services (CPCS) -- after beginning 17 years before that as a trial and appellate defender.  All told, Bill's life in public defense has spanned 36 years and has covered much of the trajectory of the right to counsel in America since Gideon v. Wainwright.

Most everyone knows and loves the story of Clarence Earl Gideon scratching out his plea for counsel, and most everyone admires the Supreme Court's 1963 proclamation about our special American reverence for the right to counsel.  Yet these decades later, what Bill finds most difficult in his work is the chasm between that Gideon story and the bald political reality that funding for the right to counsel is at the bottom of every elected official's priority list.  And perhaps understandably so, because our public officials are all too rarely applauded or encouraged for their efforts to fulfill the promise of the Sixth Amendment.  So, Bill has lead his agency, over the years, to publicly acknowledge in every possible forum those legislators who have the courage to provide proper funding for the right to counsel and to express out loud the gratitude of public defense systems toward city and state bar associations that lend constant and powerful support.

What drew Bill into public defense while he was still in law school was a constantly increasing focus toward what we today call client-centered representation.  After college, he at first thought to work in some area affirming human rights in a foreign setting; perhaps the State Department or the Peace Corps.  He taught school for a few years in the Bronx, and that brought his concerns a little closer to home, focusing on the urban poor here in America.  Then he began law school and fell in love with public defense.  Like most trial lawyers, he was invigorated by the challenge of a courtroom: "the drama, the clients' peril, the chance to be a daily hero or goat."  Standing before a judge with a person's life or liberty in your hands is an enormous responsibility, so you need at least a small dose of personal bravado just to be brave enough to open the courtroom doors.  But in Bill's own words, what really drew him in was "most of all, the opportunity in every single case to humanize the client in a system whose efficient functioning depends upon the suppression of that humanity."  That was his work as a trial and appellate defender, and he carried the habits of heart, mind, and action developed there into his management and leadership work.

As counties and states throughout the country began establishing formal systems to provide criminal defense representation to the poor, criminal defense lawyers rose into leadership positions in those systems.  There was not much of a roadmap for these new leaders to follow.  Bill became the first head of CPCS's Public Defender Division in 1984 and then Chief Counsel for the state in 1991, at a time when judges, prosecutors, and law enforcement by and large did not yet recognize public defenders as partners in the criminal justice system.  From the start, he built alliances, collaborated with others who had a stake in achieving justice, and claimed a seat at the criminal justice table where he developed a strong voice as a policy-maker.  He moved from representing individual people himself to ensuring that the lawyers throughout Massachusetts who represent the indigent accused have the time, tools, and training necessary to provide constitutionally effective representation to each of their clients.  What Bill most enjoys about public defense today, in his position leading a public defense agency, is: "supporting the thousands of great people who represent indigent clients against aggressive state intervention, ranging from arrest and loss of liberty to the permanent separation of parents from their children; andreminding powerful officials that all of this intervention is significantly influenced by economic class and ethnicity, and that every client is guaranteed the Effective Assistance of Counsel, not some pale pretense of that right."  And he never shirks from saying forthrightly that good representation simply cannot be done on the cheap. 

Author/Organization: Bill Leahy
Publication Date: 02/04/2010