Bolder Management for Public Defense: Leadership in Three Dimensions


The boldest managers of indigent defense organizations are getting out from behind their desks and expanding their work environments. Not that they had any free time. Whether they run a public defender office or oversee a panel of private attorneys, these leaders were already working full-time: managing budgets, recruiting and deploying lawyers, organizing training, and keeping the courts moving every day. However, these managers have made time to branch out beyond these basic administrative tasks. They have expanded the scope of their management because they realized they could make a difference on a different plane. Understanding the potential of embracing a bolder form of leadership, these defense leaders have decided to move into new dimensions of public defense. For the last two years, some of these bold managers, as members of the Executive Session on Public Defense at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, have been telling their stories and distilling lessons from the wide variety of experiences they have had as defense lawyers, as managers, and as leaders in the field. These stories and experiences suggest three dimensions in which managers of indigent defense services can lead their organizations and their field. First, inside their offices, they can offer a special clarity of vision. Second, with their colleagues in other criminal justice agencies, they can build consensus for positive reforms within the whole system. Third, in public debate, they can advance a vision of crime prevention that rises above ideology. Indigent defense is not the most popular work in the legal profession. Many managers are regularly questioned by friends and relatives about how they can devote themselves so thoroughly to the cause of poor people accused of crimes ranging from smoking marijuana to murder. However, if more managers practiced leadership in these three dimensions, the work itself could gain appeal, for its connections with powerful values widely shared in society would be clearer to all. No single leader has completely succeeded, but together their efforts provide a coherent picture of leadership in these three dimensions. This paper, illustrated with examples from around the country, is a guide to how others might adopt a similar, bold vision of management in public defense.

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