Women Criminal Defense Attorneys blog

Connecting Women in Criminal Law

Women Criminal Defense Attorneys: Interview with Jill Paperno

Jill Paperno is the second assistant public defender for the Monroe County Public Defender’s Office in Rochester, New York. She has represented indigent defendants at the Public Defender’s Office for over twenty-seven years, handling primarily violent felonies and drug offenses. She has extensive trial experience and has trained and supervised staff attorneys for seventeen years. She is a frequent presenter at continuing legal education events, lecturing on topics ranging from “The Nuts and Bolts of Criminal Defense” to “Strategies for Cross-Examining the Child Sexual Abuse Accommodation Syndrome Expert.” She is a contributor to the New York Criminal Defense Blog.  In 2010 Ms. Paperno was awarded the Monroe County Public Defender’s Office Jeffrey A. Jacobs award for outstanding trial work.  In 2011 she was named a Rochester Daily Record Leader in Law and awarded the Daily Record Nathaniel Award.  She contributed a chapter to Strategies for Defending Sex Crimes: Leading Lawyers on Understanding the Current Sex Crimes Environment and Building a Thorough Defense, published in 2011.  She is the author of Representing the Accused: A Practical Guide to Criminal Defense, which was published in 2012.  Jill exemplifies the PD spirit, and like so many champions of justice who commit themselves to indigent representation, her work often goes unrecognized. Her book is a testament to her commitment to assure that the next generation of criminal lawyers has access to strong skills and training. I am honored to introduce Jill Paperno to you.

What inspired you to specialize in criminal defense and spend so many years dedicated to the defense of indigent clients?

I can’t say that this was my original goal.  My direction evolved over time.  I was always interested in issues relating to social justice and civil rights.  I majored in social welfare, but after my social work internships I felt that I could not have as great an impact as a social worker as I could in law.  I loved my criminal law and criminal procedure classes.  After graduating I worked at Prisoners’ Legal Services, and then about two and a half years out I was lucky enough to land a job at the Monroe County Public Defender’s Office.  New York allows each county to decide how to provide indigent defense, and Monroe County was one of the few PD offices that handled felonies, so there were many staffers with a depth of experience and knowledge.

I stayed because I loved the people I worked with, I cared deeply for so many of my clients, I was enraged by the conduct of some of the police officers involved in cases I handled and felt that I could challenge the injustice my clients experienced, the job was challenging and exciting, and I felt I had a knack for it.  And of course, I was engaged in the social justice and civil rights work I had always cared about.  I was also lucky enough to be in an office that was relatively well funded, as compared with so many across the state (and country).  Of course, we need much more, and our caseloads are too high, but we have the ability to hire experts and the office culture has always been one in which quality representation was expected of the staff.

When you started your career as a public defender what was the practice like for women at the public defender’s office and how have things changed for women public defenders today?

When I started there were very few women doing criminal defense or working as public defenders in the criminal trial section of the office.  I can think of three women who were in the criminal trial section when I started.  Once women had children, they often moved to other work within the office or in other places.

The men in the public defender’s office and the district attorney’s office were accepting of women attorneys.  The supervisors in the criminal section were all men when I started.  My male colleagues were wonderful people who were always open to sharing their knowledge and providing support and promoted an inclusive environment.  By contrast, the social relationships that some of the men had with some of the judges and prosecutors were not inclusive and women were often excluded from that camaraderie.  I was surprised to find out over the years just how much contact there was between some of the judges and some of my male colleagues.

Many judges didn’t know how to deal with women defense counsel in a professional manner   There was one judge who closed the door on me and only spoke with the prosecutor.  Another hugged me on his way into court each time I handled a docket in his courtroom.  One judge used to make sexual comments to me (and other women), and would routinely comment on our perfume and clothing.  One judge made some comment to me about pulling off his loincloth.  I’m still baffled by that one.

Now there are many more women serving as criminal defense attorneys, as prosecutors, and on the bench, so the culture has changed.  I think many of the judges now on the bench have worked with women attorneys, and don’t have the resentment, discomfort or inability to interact appropriately with a strong woman defense lawyer.  (Of course, some have temperaments that do not suit them for the bench, but I don’t think their irritation is directed more at women than men these days.)

Did you have women mentors, and how did this affect your growth as a lawyer?

I did not.  I had some women friends in the office, but none who tried to teach me the ropes.  We were all extremely busy with our heavy caseloads, so it was hard to have enough time just to get your own work done, never mind taking someone else under your wing.

What kept you at the public defender’s office for so many years? And why do you think more people don¹t commit to a career as a public defender?

It’s funny – I’m now the person who has been in the criminal trial section longer than any other lawyer.  I hadn’t really thought about what that means  until I was talking to Ernie Lewis of the National Association for Public Defense recently, and he commented about the challenge of being a trial attorney for all of these years.

I have stayed because I love the work, the clients, and my coworkers.  I love the challenge of trying cases and speaking to juries.  I love legal research – to me it’s like a treasure hunt.  I enjoy writing legal memos.  I enjoy training younger staff and attorneys in the community.  There are certainly things I hate about it too – the arbitrariness of which client gets the deal and which doesn’t – depending on the prosecutor, the judge, sometimes other factors, and sometimes the day of the week or the time of the day.  And the stress does get to me sometimes.  But I feel I do good work for people and I love that too.

Over the years, many of my friends left because of the stress.

I’ve been able to stay because the work hasn’t hurt me.  I make sure that I take vacations (just got back from Jamaica!), spend time with family, and have other outlets.  I think yoga helps.  Having a child helped me keep perspective over the years.  I tried to be efficient at work, and then when possible, leave it at work, or at least spend evenings with my son when he was younger (before the iPhone teen years).

PD work is tremendously stressful, and it takes an emotional toll on the attorneys.  I’ve seen attorneys have breakdowns as a result of the work.  We’re dealing with people’s lives, fearful and angry families, challenging clients, and sometimes nasty judges or prosecutors.  We are supposed to remember to make every objection in a particular way and at a particular time or we may have failed to preserve significant issues.  It’s too much to ask, and it can all be quite terrifying.  If you can’t find perspective and balance, you can’t keep doing it.

I think sometimes we can be really hard on ourselves – kicking ourselves for not making a particular argument or failing to raise a legal point.  Maybe we said something the wrong way during a trial.  I think that women, especially, can be pretty critical of ourselves and unforgiving of the mistakes we think we made.  But to stay with the work, you have to find a way of forgiving yourself and recognizing (if it’s true) that you have done the best you can do, and you do a really good job most of the time.  We have to recognize that if we weren’t doing the work, it’s likely that someone less caring and less hard working might have handled the case which would be a true injustice.

Do you think public defender offices offer advancement opportunities for women lawyers as compared to the private sector where there has been much publicized about the glass ceiling for women in firms?

I am the first woman in my office to have become a supervisor at the level I’ve reached.  But that hasn’t been easy. I think there may have been some kind of glass ceiling earlier in my career, but it seems like women can advance to the top now.  There are more and more women leading PD offices, and that is tremendously heartening.

What inspired you to write Representing the Accused: A Practical Guide to Criminal Defense and what kind of feedback have your gotten about the book from young lawyers, especially young women lawyers, looking for guidance?

There were several reasons I wrote the book.  I saw so many attorneys in court who did not know what they were doing, and although some were well-intentioned and wanted to help their clients, they would make huge mistakes in representing clients (like pleading clients without any agreement, failing to recognize the significance of Fourth Amendment issues, or failing to understand the importance of immigration consequences).  I spent many years teaching younger staff, and thought it would be helpful to try to pull together in one place a lot of the information I had learned over the years, so that maybe I could contribute to the improvement of defense, especially defense of indigent defendants.

The feedback has been great (although I doubt someone I know will come up to me and tell me the book was terrible).  I’ve guest-lectured in some criminal defense clinic classes in Syracuse and the students have been very generous in their comments.  I was even asked for my autograph!   I’ve been contacted on LinkedIn or through my website by some strangers who bought the book, and they too have been very positive in their feedback.

What was the most fascinating case you ever worked on? What is the case that has most stayed with you through the years?

Wow.  That question could take me in some very different directions.  There were two cases I found really fascinating – a murder case with a client who had a brain injury, and we used an imperfect justification defense, and a sex offense in which the client’s defense was that he was actually engaged in the practice of Santeria.

One of the cases that has stayed with me was the case of a woman who was abused as a child, and then went on to cause the death of her young son.  My son was younger at the time, and I couldn’t help but picture the child in the situation.  Usually I’m more able to compartmentalize.

Although I think we all have some types of cases that might touch us more deeply, I hear the women I work with articulate it with greater frequency.  I think we have to create an environment in our offices where it’s okay to acknowledge the sadness and pain the work sometimes causes.

What part of being a public defender most fuels you? And what part most drains you?

Most fueling – fighting unfair police practices, connections with clients, enthusiastic younger staff, brainstorming with experienced and knowledgeable colleagues, and finding the legal key that unlocks a case.  Most draining – arbitrary offers; lying cops; mandatory sentencing – especially for young or developmentally disabled defendants who barely knew what they were doing; the extent of authority given to prosecutors, some of whom lack the compassion and life experience necessary to make the decisions they are required to make; and unnecessary nastiness from some – certainly not all –  prosecutors or judges.

Do you think women bring unique skills to criminal trial work? And what have you considered your secret weapon as a woman trial lawyer?

Strangely, I think one problem we as women sometimes have becomes a plus – I think often women are less confident as we come into this work, and it makes us work harder to know the law and the case.  I also think we can come across as less blustery during trial.  I think one skill I have is that I can usually read people pretty well – women’s intuition? – so in cross-examination I get a sense of what a person is feeling, whether they’re being truthful, and whether there’s something else going on.

Best advice you ever received?

Not from a lawyer.  My grandfather had a keychain with part of the “Serenity Prayer” on it:

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.

Something you wish you could go back and teach your younger self?

Don’t be afraid of looking stupid and don’t be so hard on yourself.  In the future things that seemed big at the time won’t be.  Actually – there was a great advice column years ago given as a commencement speech that summed up a lot of my feelings.  The refrain was “Wear Sunscreen.”  It was then performed as a song.  Here’s the link.

Leave a Reply