This week, I had a conversation with Lisa Wayne, a criminal defense attorney based out of Boulder and Denver, Colorado who has tried hundreds of cases in both state and federal court in Colorado and throughout the United States. She has been passionately fighting for clients charged with criminal offenses for over 26 years. She spent 13 years dedicated to the representation of indigent clients at the public defender’s office before opening up her own private practice. She is the immediate past president of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL) and continues to serve on the Executive Committee. She is one of only six women to be elected President of the organization. Lisa has taught at the University of Colorado law school for years, as well as Cardozo and Harvard Law Schools and is a frequent legal commentator on many national news programs. Lisa is a recipient of the Robert Heeney NACDL Award, one of our profession’s highest honors. She is in every sense a great woman defender and exactly the kind of inspiration that she talks about in her interview that makes us all want to be better.
You just finished your term as one of only six women Presidents of NACDL. What is the most powerful change that you have seen for women in criminal defense?
To me the most powerful change for women has been the sheer number of women in public defender’s offices all across the country which obviously stems from the current ratio of women to men in law school. Most law schools in the country are now more than 50% women and as a result that translates into more women being interested in public sector jobs and criminal defense work in general. I can tell you in the Colorado public defender’s office alone, now the majority of lawyers are women. I think this change will ultimately affect the criminal justice system in a positive way because generally speaking women have the ability to approach a case in a very compassionate and insightful way. That is a big deal because I consider this ability an important tool in any defense.
Do you think that this increase in women in the public sector translates into more women criminal defense attorneys entering the private sector as well?
I don’t know because what remains true even today is the fact that women still have to make a choice if they want to have a family. No matter how liberated or evolved your male partner may be, it is usually the woman that stays home or takes time off to raise a family and so that choice makes it harder for women in terms of the private sector or going into private practice. To be competitive you have to be consistently working at a certain level for many years so deciding to take time off for your family is going to affect the level playing field. I don’t know how to change that, and quite frankly I don’t know if it should change. But I think that there is still a difference between men and women in this regard.
When did it occur to you that you had made it in the criminal defense field? What does being a successful criminal defense attorney mean to you?
I am not sure that I really feel that I have made it. I feel like I have so much more work to do. I think I have reached a point where I can make a good living and I do well and that has really been the result of a lot of hard work put in during my time at the public defender’s office which allowed me to step out into the private world and build a successful practice. But success is so subjective. To some people their success is measured by their financial success, for others it is measured by the big case, the high-profile media case, or finally being on television themselves. For some it is simply enough to say you have made a difference in your clients’ lives, or the experience of having a client come back and say “thank you”, or having a client or family say “you saved our son’s or daughter’s life.” For me I think it is a combination of things, but at the core of it is what I have done for my clients and their families and loved ones, that is how I measure my success and I probably reached that early on when I was a public defender and had countless opportunities to do right by clients every day.
If you could go back and give one piece of career advice to your 30-year old self what would it be?
I am lucky because I don’t think I would change a thing. Early on I was really fortunate because I had a core group of about 8 to 10 women from the public defender’s office and we really bonded together. We had each other’s back. I was there almost 13 years and many of my friends weren’t there that long, but we always stayed close and remain close to this very day. This close group of female friends made all the difference in the world. We were really there for each other; through every hard case, through having children, through divorces, through sicknesses, and the whole bit. I was lucky to have that.
When I was at the public defender’s office, I tried a ton of cases, really hard cases, and I loved it and really thrived. For whatever reason I fell into this cycle of defending a lot of serial rapists and without planning or seeking it out I developed an expertise of representing many clients charged with sex crimes. It became a platform for me in private practice because I had this expertise that I had gained in the public defender’s office. I also saw early on that I wanted to diversify how I contributed to our field, so in my 30’s I began to teach. Teaching really allowed me to extend my work in this field because I have never experienced feeling burnt out. I think being a criminal defense attorney and also teaching helped me avoid that burn out that a lot of lawyers get and I really just fell into teaching. I got lucky in so many ways.
Is there an advantage that a woman has in defending a client charged with a sex crime?
No, I don’t think so. I think that is a fallacy but I think we do bring something different to the representation than a man. Quite frankly I think it is harder, because there are things about the crime that resonate with you because you are a woman, and I can’t imagine a woman defender out there that isn’t affected when she hears about a horrible sexual assault case, whether it is sexual assault of a child or an adult women. So as a woman you go through some emotional turmoil in taking on a case that may resonate with your own fears. But as a true defender you recognize that people are wrongly accused, accused of things greater than what they have done, and even if they did do what they are accused of you still have their back because you recognize they need to be defended. I certainly don’t think it is easier and in many ways it may take its toll on us more than it does a man.
How instrumental do you think it was to your growth as a lawyer to have that core group of women supporting you through the years?
It was vital for me. There are great male mentors, and many of my mentors were men including the man that hired me at the public defender’s office and hired many of my girlfriends. He was very pro-woman and was a great mentor to me, so I don’t want to sell him or men short, because men can be as helpful to women as other women. But this core group of women was a critical part of my growth.
Of the women criminal defense attorneys that you know and admire what made them stand out to you? Why were you inspired by them?
I think it is their intellect, their confidence, and their compassion. When I think of the women that I know and have been inspired by, these are the three things that stand out to me. They have this incredible strength that endures over time, throughout the years of handling what can be tough and awful cases they just always have this strength and endurance and pride that really resonates with me and makes me want to keep going. Through the years whenever I saw a great woman defender I would always think to myself “I want to be like that; when I grow up I hope I can be like that.” Great women defenders inspire us all to be better.
What was the most fascinating or interesting case you ever worked on?
I represented a woman accused of killing her infant child. She was accused of putting her own child in a closet and suffocating her. She wasn’t a woman of means and was working her way through nursing school with three jobs and she didn’t have the money to buy all the kinds of equipment to help soothe a colicky baby, so she took some unfortunate advice from her mother who told her to soothe the baby by putting her in a car seat in a dark closet. She fell asleep and the baby toppled over and suffocated. It was an awful case and a high profile media case. The district attorney wouldn’t give her a deal and we went to trial and we won. It was the kind of gut wrenching case that stays with you and becomes a part of your fabric. I have stayed in touch with the client for many years and she is now a successful nurse and has gone on to have other children.
Another case that stuck with me was one of the first felony cases I was ever assigned to at the public defender’s office. A young woman with mental illness had faked a pregnancy and went to the hospital around the time she would have given birth and stole a baby. This was the kind of case that had the effect of changing the law and now in Colorado they put ID bracelets on infants the minute they are born. The case was resolved and the woman got the mental health treatment she desperately needed but just recently I ran into the biological mother of the baby that was stolen. She is a discovery clerk at the state attorney’s office. She came up to me and said “do you know who I am?” and when she told me, I thought she might start yelling at me, but to my surprise she told me how much I had affected her and her daughter’s life and that they think of me all the time. She said they were so moved at how hard I had fought for my client and worked so hard to get her help. She showed me pictures of her 25-year-old daughter that was now a nurse. I was so touched by the encounter. It never ceases to amaze me what a powerful effect a case can have on those of us touched by it.