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I Found a Lawyer in My Serial

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Those of you who listen, as I do, to podcasts are probably aware of “Serial,” a spinoff of “This American Life” which is said to be the most listened-to podcast ever.  This series of 12 podcast episodes (the last episode just out in mid-December) follows reporter Sarah Koenig’s investigation of a 15-year old murder questioning the guilt of the young man convicted of it.  (I might also mention that Serial was hilariously parodied on the December 20 Saturday Night Live.)

Among the many angles and details from which the case is viewed in “Serial,” the most noteworthy to me was the behavior of the defense lawyer, Cristina Gutierrez, who was renowned and sought-after, yet whose work on this case seems to have been significantly impaired.  If you don’t care to listen to the entire series, I suggest you at least sample Episode 10, which focuses on her, including her peculiar courtroom phrasing, puzzling and unclear strategy, and the fact that she apparently became suddenly and urgently obsessed with pressuring clients to pay (large sums).  The impression is that much of this behavior was new for her, a departure from her baseline self.  Finally, after losing the case it seems that her reactive depression contributed to rapid physical deterioration/illness and death.  (Koenig provides the facts but does not spell out the conclusions that I am proposing about this attorney, though she lays out a description that certainly leads to them.)

Apart from the questions (not resolved in Episode 10) of whether the young man did, in fact, commit the crime, and whether the young man had “ineffective counsel” (the assertion in a current appeal of the case), after my years at LCL I feel quite sorry for the attorney.  There are plenty of problems from a practice management standpoint in how she managed the case – on that score, see the blog post of Heidi Alexander, my colleague (in LOMAP, our sister program) and fellow podcast fan.

From a mental health standpoint, Gutierrez’ behavior, including the urgent quest for money, certainly reminds me of cases of addiction (to alcohol/drugs or to gambling).  On the other hand, her idiosyncratic way of speaking (and perhaps thinking) at that point in her career even raises the question of some kind of psychosis (which could have any of a number of causes – depression, sleep deprivation, drugs, etc.) – speculation on my part, but the signs of something seriously wrong are unmistakable.

When I speak on behalf of LCL, I often repeat Don Corleone’s question from The Godfather: “Why didn’t you come to me first?”  In my case, I mean, before you got in trouble through impaired professional behavior.  So often lawyers only find their way to LCL (or help in general) after much damage is done, rather than earlier, when it might have been prevented.  Just as damaging, colleagues are typically reluctant to interfere even when someone’s decline in functioning is obvious.  When you are drowning in depression or addiction (to mention only the two most common issues), your behavior – in relationships and at work – is likely to be affected.  In this case, it was drastically life-altering for both attorney and client.


Jeff Fortgang, PhD




CATEGORIES: Career & Practice Concerns | Uncategorized

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