Why We Do It
by Alyssa Bartholomew, OCDLA President
From the Nov-Dec 2019 issue of The Oregon Defense Attorney
Usually, I must finish my article for the “View from Here” prior to the Public Defense Management Conference in mid-October. But honestly given all the uncertainty surrounding public defense this past year, I figured I would wait until after the conference to write my article.
I’m glad I did because it has given me a chance to reflect on what is important—to me and to OCDLA. Let me begin by telling you a little about myself, since I have not met many of you. I am originally from the East Coast. I started my career as a prosecutor in Washington, DC, where, by the time I left, I was prosecuting major felonies and civil commitments. I argued before the Washington Court of Appeals, wrote my own briefs, and got conviction after conviction throughout my early career. I watched as police officers bent the rules to ensure convictions. As I saw folks come and go through the jail and prison systems, I began to see those defendants as people. Over the years, I began to open my eyes and see humans sitting in the courtroom, not just stacks of files before me. That’s when I decided it was time for a change.
I loved my job and the people I worked with. However, I started to see how my actions as a prosecutor negatively influenced the lives of the people in the courtroom. Some of the defendants were themselves victims, and prosecuting them had a circular effect of keeping them inside the system. At that point in my career, I was little more than a cog in the system. Instead of keeping them circling and cycling in the criminal justice system I wanted to try and fix these people; I wanted to see if I could make even the slightest difference in their lives.
Circumstances moved me to southern Oregon. I never in my wildest dreams thought I would live in Medford. But I have to say I wouldn’t have it any other way. I became a public defender working at Southern Oregon Public Defender in 2005, but in 2007 an opportunity presented itself and I became an Assistant County Counsel, overseeing the sheriff’s office, district attorney’s office, Health and Human Services and a few other areas. I liked my job. But again I felt like a cog in the machine and I didn’t feel like I was getting that face-to-face human interaction I needed to feel good—about my job and what I was doing in the world—so in 2009 I went back to SOPD and they welcomed me with open arms.
I love my job. I love what I do. I love talking with my clients, giving them the one-on-one attention they need to tell me not only about their charges but how they got to this stage in life. I love when I come to work and hear a voicemail from a former client who is doing well, just calling to say thank you. I love seeing former clients in day-to-day activities with smiles on their faces, with their children or family members nearby and having them say “I’m trying” or “I’m doing well” or “It’s hard but I’ve accomplished so much.” Of course, there are those who are a “revolving door,” who try but just can’t get a handle on life, who are not doing well and don’t have the drive, desire, or support to be anything else. It is sad to see people I cannot help, but I know that at least for a few moments in their lives I listened, I was their cheerleader, their support when everyone else turned a blind eye. I know that I stood next to them and helped them through a difficult time, and I remain filled with hope that one day the system will help them or they will help themselves—if not today then maybe, just maybe, someday it will click.
I have a file folder filled with art, letters, cards, and random notes on scrap paper from clients and family members who have reached out over the years to say thank you. There are days when I think my clients are ungrateful, uncaring, or that I’m not making a difference. Those days I pull a note from the file folder and for a second reflect and smile. We don’t do this work for the money, we do it for those brief seconds when we make a difference in someone’s life, and that is worth more than mere money.
I got on the OCDLA Board of Directors in 2015 because I love criminal defense and want to be a part of how this organization that reaches people from Klamath Falls to Washington County, Pendleton to Brookings. I love how OCDLA works for its members, puts on CLEs, lobbies for its members and for individual rights, and how we have a bond that other attorneys don’t quite understand. I love how an organization like this reaches so many, and even though we are from all different walks of life, we all can come together because we have a love for our careers, and we want to make it the best. I love how, legislatively, OCDLA was integral in death penalty defense, juvenile reform and grand jury recording. I know we can do so much more.
I can’t meet each one of our members individually, but I hope that I can be there to cheer you on, to be there for this organization that I love and that I know, through the good and bad, be there for its members, cheering us on as we navigate this crazy world of criminal defense work. We are all in this together, we all want that greater good. I know we can achieve it.
Alone, we can’t change the world. But we can be a shoulder to cry on, a cheerleader for our client, someone willing to look at them as a fellow human and not as just a number in the system. We are an amazing group of extremely talented people. I can’t wait to see what we as criminal defense, juvenile and appellate attorneys do next. I am proud of this organization and its members. I look forward to meeting you at conferences, or if you are traveling through southern Oregon, let me know and we can meet up.
Tell me what OCDLA can do for you and what you want to see this organization become. I look forward to working with you to make this organization even better. Let’s work together and see all that we can accomplish. In the meantime, let’s do what we all do best—cheer for those who cannot cheer for themselves.
OCDLA Board President Alyssa Bartholomew practices law in Medford.