Being More Than a Criminal Defender

The work of a lawyer is stressful, exhausting, and humbling all at once. Those who choose to focus their work on criminal defense should really take a page from the book of the lawyer showcased in this article. He sees each client as an innocent human being no matter what crime they are accused of, and builds a trustworthy relationship with them. Read the full piece below:

Prison sadThose who have represented people accused of crimes know that there is no more terrifying moment than realizing that your client is innocent. Our criminal justice system is deeply flawed. Knowing that you and your resources — meager as they inevitably feel at that moment — are all that stand between you and a substantial injustice is overwhelming.

Brian Stolarz — a partner at LeClairRyan — knows the feeling. His innocent client wasn’t just accused; he’d already been convicted of killing a cop. And, worse, he had already been sentenced to death. Stolarz has written a book about the: “Race and Justice on Death Row: The Race Against Time and Texas to Free an Innocent Man” (affiliate link). It’s coming out soon, and is available for preorder on Amazon.

Stolarz stuck with his client and his case for years and, finally, was there when his client walked out of death row in Texas. His book is the story of his journey with his client from the moment he came to believe his client was innocent until the day his client was freed.

It’s also, happily, a really good read.

Here’s how it starts:

I knew Alfred Dewayne Brown was stone-cold innocent the moment I met him. He was a 25-year-old, soft-spoken gentle giant with a 69 IQ living in the Polunsky Unit of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice in Livingston, Texas, north of Houston. Polunsky is where Texas houses people before it kills them. In 2005 he had been sentenced to die for the murder of a police officer, and he had been living on death row pretty much ever since. I was working for K&L Gates, a high-powered mega-firm in Washington DC, longing for a case I could be passionate about.

The book walks through what Stolarz had to do, both with the system in Texas and at K&L Gates, to get his client off of death row. (He did so much pro bono work on the case he didn’t get a bonus for years.)

But, while the book shows exactly why it’s really bad to be a poor black man accused of killing a cop in Texas, how broken that system of justice is, and how uplifting it can be when someone who should have a heart full of hate takes a different path, it’s also a very real peek into the emotional life of a criminal defense lawyer wrestling with a case that he takes very very personally. If you’ve never spent a lot of time in a jail cell with a client, it’s hard to get a picture of what that relationship comes to look like. It doesn’t happen all the time, but sometimes you become pretty good friends with the person on the other side of the table. I recognize so much of my own time as a public defender in Stolarz’s relationship with his client.

Stolarz would always bring money to buy food at the prison for Brown while they were meeting. At one point he describes a lull in their conversation as they ate.

[W]e were running out of thing to talk about so I asked him one of my favorite questions of friends — what would be your death row meal? But I forgot I was actually on death row.

It’s odd to think that you can forget where you are so completely. But it’s also one of the things that’s really true about the kind of relationship you sometimes form with a client when you’re eyeballs deep in a case. (Brown’s answer, for what it’s worth, was crawfish. He’s from Louisiana.)

Lawyers often miss a sense of calling, a sense of meaning. Our profession is too frequently chronically unhappy and too quick to take comfort in alcohol or drugs or other bad choices. Much of that is because we too often chase secure money or position instead of sacrificing to improve the lives of others.

Stolarz describes how his firm reacted to his pro bono work, and the comments he got from other lawyers while he toiled away for his friend on death row. I’ve known him for years and, as the book explains all too well, this case has been a crucible for him. Since his client has been freed, he’s been speaking around the country talking about the case and his work. I’ve seen him speak; it’s inspiring. He’s been profiled in the Washington Post and been on TV talking about the case.

In short, he’s gotten for himself — by pursuing meaning instead of money — a good bit of what anyone would recognize as success. For Stolarz, the straightest path to this reward came not through the safe play of grinding out billable work for large corporate clients, but by following his heart on a big quest for justice.

It’s a rare lawyer who can’t learn from that.

Matt Kaiser is a white-collar defense attorney at KaiserDillon. He’s represented stockbrokers, tax preparers, doctors, drug dealers, and political appointees in federal investigations and indicted cases. His twitter handle is @mattkaiser. His email is He’d love to hear from you if you’re inclined to say something nice.


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