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Young public defender struggles with workload, emotional strain

Friday, December 20, 2013 | 6:00 a.m. CST; updated 1:33 p.m. CST, Friday, December 20, 2013
Natalie Hull, an attorney who works as a public defender for Missouri, worries that her work load and dedication to her job might lead her to burn out on her career choice. She chose the work because she comes from a family with a strong tradition of public service.

COLUMBIA — Clack, clack, clack. Public defender Natalie Hull's heels clattered on the pink marble stairs of the Boone County Courthouse as she hurried between courtrooms. A purple snakeskin bag full of case files hung from her shoulder.

It was Tuesday, Nov. 12, and the middle of a busy week for Hull. The day would be packed with hearings, bench trials and other appointments. On Wednesday, Hull would lead the defense in a jury trial for the first time. Thursday, she would drive an hour to Pettis County to fill in for a lawyer on maternity leave.

That week, she would also make appearances in juvenile court, represent clients at hearings and visit inmates in the Boone County Jail.

It's been like this since Hull was hired by the Missouri State Public Defender in July 2012. She has closed 395 cases with clients, including juveniles accused of misdemeanors and repeat offenders charged with felonies. She has 124 cases open, and more keep coming in.

In the first two weeks of November, Hull logged a total of 140 hours, working through two weekends and Veterans Day.

"I am my job," Hull said. The mountain of work has put strains on her personal life. Dating is a challenge, and she isn't sure she'll be able to have the family she envisions. For now, she enjoys the company of her three cats and yellow Labrador retriever.

She's one of 13 busy attorneys in the public defender's trial office on Walnut Street in Columbia, which was working on a total of 1,301 cases as of mid-December, according to Deputy District Defender Stephan Bell, who hired Hull.

She finds it hard to complain about the $3,759 a month she earns when her clients make so little, or nothing at all. Her law degree left her with $150,000 of student loans, though — as a public defender — she qualifies for the federal Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program. The government will forgive her debt if she makes reduced payments for the next 10 years.

Despite the challenges of the job, Hull perseveres.

"In this job, I'm juggling constantly, and if I drop the ball, my client really suffers," she said. "And that makes each ball very heavy."

She said she loves being a public defender. She doesn't foresee changing jobs, but she can't be sure. If she doesn't learn how to balance her work with her personal life, she could burn out.

Burnout and the heavy caseloads contribute to the Missouri State Public Defender's high turnover rate, Division Director Joel Elmer said. According to Missouri State Public Defender's annual report for 2012, turnover rates were between 20 percent and 22 percent beginning in the mid-2000s.

The system sees a lot of applicants who want to work hard to help clients, but most of them are recent law school graduates who lack courtroom experience, Elmer said.

The public defender system compensates by providing new lawyers with extensive training in communicating with clients, trial skills and more specialized subjects.

"Every time we turn over, we lose experience we can't replace," Elmer said.

Making a difference

When Hull was 14 and living in Irving, Texas, she volunteered for Teen Court, a program in which teens represent other teens who have been charged with petty crimes. She won the "most-prepared defense attorney" award that year.

Despite her early success, she didn't always want to be a lawyer. She studied photojournalism as an undergraduate and spent three years working as a photojournalist and editor for newspapers in California and Texas. She half-jokes that she woke up one morning and decided to go to law school.

"I just came to the realization that I didn't want to be the news-taker anymore, that if I wanted to make a difference, then I should go do something where I could be a newsmaker," she said.

She's not the first in her family to go into public service. Her grandfather served on the school board that integrated public schools in her hometown of Hubbard, Texas. Her mother, Jo Anne Hull, worked for the Texas Rehabilitation Commission, where she helped people with disabilities get jobs.

Hull has been proud of her family's tradition of public service since her childhood. Jo Anne Hull remembers when her 9-year-old daughter volunteered at the Humane Society. The leader asked each girl to introduce herself and say why she wanted to volunteer. Later, she called Jo Anne Hull to tell her what her daughter said.

"Natalie said, 'Our family believes in public service,'" Jo Anne Hull recalled. "I thought, 'That's true.' I was proud of her."

This tradition of public service led Hull to be a public defender, to help ensure that everyone charged with a crime gets legal representation.

That kind of commitment is key. Some attorneys only apply because they think the experience will make them more marketable as lawyers later in their careers, Bell said.

"The people who end up being our employees are the people who want to help the clients," Bell said.

New public defenders commit to work at least two years to make sure all the training they get from Missouri State Public Defender isn't wasted. Training includes workshops on trial preparation and communicating with clients.

Intelligence, perseverance, a sense of humor, compassion and the ability to navigate the criminal justice system are all important traits, Bell said. It's also important for public defenders to understand how poor their clients are and how much work it takes to represent them, she said. Public defenders serve clients who qualify as indigent under federal guidelines.

Emotional burden

While a law student at the University of Kansas, Hull thought she would end up as a prosecutor. But she still had a journalist's curiosity, and she wanted to understand how the defense worked, too. That led her to intern at the Kansas City public defender office.

On her first day there, an attorney handed her 300 pages of documents related to the case and told her to read them by the next day. The attorney asked her to take the documents to the client, who was in custody.

"What did he do?" Hull remembers asking the attorney about her client.

"They say he killed two people," the attorney said.

"And you want me to go by myself?" Her voice rose as she related the surprise she felt at the time.

"And the (attorney)'s like, 'Sure, why not? He's in jail. You'll be fine,'" Hull said.

The client turned out to be an unintimidating 19-year-old man four inches shorter than Hull. She became invested in the case and was heartbroken when her client decided to plead guilty.

She'll never forget the way he said goodbye to his family. He had to stand behind the defense table, 10 feet from his family in the gallery and separated by the railing that divides the courtroom. The judge gave him only 10 minutes.

"So he spent all 10 minutes just waving and making faces at his 2-year-old daughter," Hull recalls. "I had to leave the room."

Hull later interned for a prosecutor in Kansas City, but she felt drawn toward being a public defender. She missed the clients she'd served as a public defender intern. She also enjoyed making use of another essential quality of a public defender — trying to find the good in everyone.

Hull tries to get to know her clients and to understand what circumstances led to their charges.

"You know, people are not their charges," she said. "People are a product of their lives and their environment, and the charge is usually just a product of that, too."

The attachment that develops between defender and client can make the job difficult emotionally. It's important for new defenders to learn to cope with the job's emotional impact, Bell said.

Bell observed that Hull sometimes becomes obsessive about the clients she's grown particularly attached to, especially when the outcome of the case disappoints her.

"Sometimes, when she is overly emotional, it's hard for her to hit the restart button," Bell said.

Bell remembers being the same way in the beginning, finding it hard to recover from the anger and frustration of losing a case.

"You have to funnel it," Bell said. "You can't let it be this vague frustration or else you burn out and you quit."

Older attorneys have advised her that if she doesn't find a way to balance work and her personal life, she will burn out. If she burns out, she won't be useful to anyone.

Part of the problem might be that there's so much work that it spills over into weekends. Hull works on cases at home, visits clients in jail over the weekend or goes to her office on Saturday or Sunday. 

The lives of others

Hull had spent the past two weeks preparing for the trial, the first in which she would lead the defense. Her client was a man from Marshall charged with unlawful possession of a weapon, an 11-inch knife. She spent hours advising him, filing pretrial motions, preparing to examine and cross-examine witnesses and composing opening and closing statements.

On Nov. 13, the morning of the trial, Hull arrived at the office at 6:30 a.m. to print and make copies of documents she planned to use in the defense presentation. While she worked, she jammed to pop music.

"You have to get yourself psyched up," Hull said.

She connected her iPhone to her computer while she sorted which files she would take home for the weekend. "It's Your Life" by Francesca Battistelli began playing — the theme song she had chosen for the case. She picks a new song each time.

Hull sang along as she worked:

"It's your life; What you gonna do?; The world is watching you."

The song continued. Hull turned the volume down.

"I add in my head, 'But it's not just your life. It's his life,'" she said. "The decisions I make in all of this don't just affect me. Am I gonna be proud of what I say? Am I fighting the right fight for this man, this person?"

The trial began at 9 a.m. Four hours later, the jury returned from deliberation with a guilty verdict.

At the end of that week, Hull was exhausted. She wilted in her chair while she used her computer to calculate the hours she had worked on the case — about 10 hours a day, including weekends. She sorted through her papers and shoved a stack of manila case files into her purple snakeskin bag to take home.

"This job is heavy," she said. "There's a lot of weight in what I do, and I don't take it lightly."


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Comments

Tracey Goldner February 14, 2014 | 11:20 p.m.

Really interesting article about a world we don't often hear about. Nice work.

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