No electricity in the courthouse? No problem.
No funding? We’ll make it work.
Client’s likely going to jail? What can we do to decrease his sentence?
One can’t help but be impressed by his positive outlook, but it’s all in a day’s work for David and his staff. “The office is filled with tremendously talented lawyers who dedicate themselves every day to vigorously defending poor people accused of federal crimes,” he told The New York Times in 2011 when he took over as head of the office. “They often do so under the most trying circumstances, and my primary goal as the federal defender will be to support them in their efforts.”
With an abiding interest in public defense, David seized the opportunity to join the Federal Defenders in Manhattan as a trial lawyer in 2002, after working as an associate at Sullivan & Cromwell. He stayed on for six years before taking a break to teach at the University of Alabama and Stanford Law School. In 2011, he returned to the Federal Defenders to succeed Leonard F. Joy as executive director and attorney-in-chief. In this role, David manages the Federal Defenders’ four offices, located in Brooklyn, Manhattan, White Plains and Central Islip, and oversees a staff roughly split between the Southern District of New York and the Eastern District of New York. At any given time, the lawyers handle 40 to 50 cases. In addition to managing these offices and their staff, David maintains his own small caseload, second-seats lawyers on trials when he can, and coordinates the selection of the Criminal Justice Act (CJA) panel.
David has had the opportunity to work with several of S&C’s secondees. “It’s been a fantastic program for us; the S&C associates have been amazing across the board,” he says. One of the biggest challenges the Federal Defenders face is that their caseloads are greater than their resources. Having even just one S&C lawyer in the office has been tremendously helpful.
David has some ideas for future projects for office development. “I want us to do a lot more in the way of training, not just within the office, but among the CJA panel of lawyers. I want us to be a hub for a good criminal defense community where people share ideas and where everybody is interested in learning all there is to know from other districts,” he says.
In the meantime, the Federal Defenders must be creative with their staffing solutions and help each other out as much as possible. David is no stranger to this task, as it is always the rule in his office. One example he shared took place in the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy. The federal court in Manhattan put criminal cases on hold for the first time since the attacks of September 11, 2001, due to the extensive power outages and flood damage experienced by surrounding neighborhoods.
But U.S. District Judge Colleen McMahon scheduled Federal Defenders’ client Paul Ceglia’s bail hearing during the power outage anyway. Ceglia had been charged with engineering a multimillion-dollar scheme to defraud Facebook and its chief executive, Mark Zuckerberg, and though he had not originally been staffed to the case, David was the only federal defender who was able to trek across the Brooklyn Bridge that day to appear in court on his behalf.
David described the scene: “We did the hearing in the courtroom; the only light was coming in through the windows. Two prosecutors, the court reporter, the judge, the judge’s deputy and myself were all standing right up at the bench, crowded around, talking into the judge’s cell phone, which was on speaker, tying in Mr. Ceglia and his lawyer in Buffalo with the rest of us in the courthouse.”
Looking back on his career so far, David praises his experience as an associate at S&C. While he may not have realized he was preparing for a day when he’d be arguing for a client on a cell phone in the dark in the aftermath of a natural disaster, David recognizes that he gained valuable knowledge while at S&C. “S&C is a tremendous place to practice as a young lawyer. I learned how to thoroughly handle a case from the partners and senior associates I worked with.” He offers good advice to those wishing to pursue public defense or other areas of law: “I think the greatest thing you can have as a young lawyer is a good role model.”
For David, Karen Seymour was that person. He worked with her right before she returned to the U.S. Attorney’s Office to become chief of the Criminal Division. “She knew every detail of a case, but could still manage it from a distance as well. She knew what to delegate and what she needed to do herself. She was always so familiar with the facts of a case. You felt good discussing the case with her, because you knew she was on top of it. Watching lawyers like that practice is a great lesson, no matter what area of practice you’re in.”