Academic journal article Albany Law Review

The Measure of Good Lawyering: Evaluating Holistic Defense in Practice

Academic journal article Albany Law Review

The Measure of Good Lawyering: Evaluating Holistic Defense in Practice

Article excerpt


It is a weekday morning in a public defender's office located in a downtown office building. Defendants and their family members shuffle into the lobby and take seats in plastic chairs to wait for their attorneys. Seated behind thick glass, the receptionist juggles the steadily ringing telephone with the paperwork on her desk, looking up occasionally to buzz a visitor through the locked door into the inner office. This is business as usual in a traditional public defender's office, underresourced and scrambling to keep up with the constant inflow of new cases.

In another city, clients of the public defender agency enter a sunlit lobby and are greeted in English and Spanish by a receptionist seated at a circular desk. While waiting to meet with their attorneys, clients help themselves to coffee and snacks and read brochures about how to register to vote and have their driving privileges restored. At the top of a spiral staircase, attorneys confer with their clients in private offices, pausing occasionally to make notes in their computerized case management system. Downstairs, one social worker is screening a client for mental health issues while another works the phones to find a bed for another client at a residential drug treatment facility. In a conference room, children from the agency's summer enrichment program are working on an electronics project. For this holistic defender office, it is another typical day at work.

Holistic defense, also known as problem-solving lawyering, community oriented defense, therapeutic defense, holistic advocacy, or integrated service representation, is the most comprehensive statement to date of what defines the effective assistance of counsel for criminal defendants. (1) The holistic defense model arose partly in response to widespread criticism of existing systems for delivering defense services to indigent clients, and partly as a component of the larger problem-solving movement taking hold in the criminal justice system over the past two decades. The expansion of collateral consequences such as sex offender registration and ineligibility for public housing over the past three decades was another primary motivator for the development of the holistic defense paradigm.

The holistic model stands in contrast to the traditional model of public defense. Steinberg and Feige note that many public defenders are frustrated by the limitations of a traditional representation model that seeks only to satisfy minimal constitutional requirements. (1) The holistic defense model asks public defenders to do more for their clients and communities. Advocates for holistic defense argue that because it is client-centered, holistic defense humanizes clients and affords them more dignity and respect than a traditional model of criminal defense (3) while protecting defendants from consequences that are often hidden. (4) Further, advocates of holistic defense argue that it can reduce incarceration in several ways. First, because holistic defense attempts to solve underlying social and environmental problems that may have contributed to a client's involvement in crime, advocates for holistic defense argue that it reduces repeat incarceration. (5) Second, because holistic defense increases the focus on consequences that collaterally result from an arrest or conviction, holistic defense can anticipate future events that might lead to a cycle of crime, including both legal and non-legal consequences such as eviction, loss of employment, civil commitment, sex offender registration, and ancillary civil or administrative proceedings. (6)

Some observers criticize the holistic defense model on normative or theoretical grounds. For example, Moore notes possible ethical concerns when a defender weighs a "client's liberty issues" against the "client's best social interests." (7) Moreover, Holland, building on Lee, argues that holistic defense may directly conflict with the attorney's obligation of "zealous advocacy," with a detrimental effect on defenders' ability to obtain the best legal outcomes for their clients. …

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