Public Defenders Going the Extra Mile

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By: Nate Ploetz

After deciding that I wanted to do public interest work this summer, I was offered a summer internship at the Chautauqua County Public Defender’s Office. I am from the Chautauqua County area, so I was excited to work in the community I grew up in. Thankfully, despite COVID-19, the Public Defender’s Office also made it possible to do the internship in person.

I think the best feature of the internship was how it was designed to expose the interns to as many aspects of the job as possible. Rather than working with one supervisor, I got to work on assignments from almost every attorney in the office. This allowed me to hear many different perspectives and participate in a wide range of legal work. Over the course of the summer, I drafted bail motions, researched New York’s Speedy Trial Laws, downloaded discovery materials into the Public Defender’s system, represented clients during arraignments, among other things.

At one point during the internship, one of the attorneys in the office told the interns that being a good lawyer requires much more than being proficient in the law. This came to be the most important lesson I learned this summer. He told us that especially as a public defender, it is an attorney’s job to understand each client’s circumstances in order to represent them well. He also said that a public defender’s goal shouldn’t just be to defend a client’s current charge, but to guide clients through the process and help them be successful in the future.

As the summer went on, I understood what that attorney meant. Many of the defendants who were represented by the Public Defender’s Office came from environments that were unlike anything the majority of Americans experience. Clients often had no financial resources, little education, mental health issues, and no social support from friends or family. I learned to see the world through these clients’ perspectives, and saw the challenges they faced. For some, court surcharges and fees that would merely be inconvenient to most Americans were insurmountable obstacles. Others would be arrested time and time again because of addiction issues. Clients sometimes weren’t at all fazed by criminal charges because they didn’t think they had anything to lose anyway. I was also shocked by how young many of the clients were. While it was easy to be sympathetic to some of the clients, others made choices that were inexcusable and unjustifiable. But whatever the circumstances, almost all the clients came from disadvantaged backgrounds. It became clear to me that to help these clients, attorneys have to understand where they are coming from and offer help beyond a legal defense.

Throughout the summer I was able to learn how the lawyers at the Public Defender’s Office did just that. Oftentimes it meant just taking the time to listen to what a client had to say about their situation. I also observed attorneys at the office fight to reduce court fees, reach out to family members of clients, and set up mental health assistance for clients who needed it. We even spent one day calling every towing agency in the county to find a car that a client with serious mental health issues had accidentally lost. The Public Defender’s Office has also encouraged and implemented numerous beneficial programs, including drug treatment programs and a reentry clinic designed to assist people adjust to life after being released from incarceration.

It is encouraging to see all that the Chautauqua County Public Defender’s Office is doing to help clients beyond just the right to a legal defense. I believe it is in the best interest of the clients and the whole community to take this approach. Being a Summer Fellow through the University at Buffalo School of Law was a great experience for me and taught me how good lawyers represent their clients.

I am grateful for the support of the Kaplan & Reynolds Summer Fellowship Award. I would like to thank them for allowing me to spend my summer doing important and enriching work.

Ploetz Nate HeadshotName: Nate Ploetz, ‘22

Name of Fellowship: Kaplan & Reynolds Summer Fellowship Award

Placement: Chautauqua County Public Defender’s Office

Location: Mayville, New York

One important lesson I have learned from this fellowship: “Good representation requires more than just attention to the legal aspect of a case.“