“Stepanian not only helped his client but also the system, which suffers from the expense and delay caused by lawyer-incompetence filings and general client intransigence.”—Jill Redhage, Daily Journal
A sure fix for tricky cases Four lawyers are the public defender's last resort for tough clients.
By Jill Redhage for the Daily Journal April 12, 2012
SAN FRANCISCO - Google their names. You see them in the press, but they don't have websites. They practice solo. Just four criminal defense lawyers with 160 combined years of experience.
They're The Firemen: an informal short list of Criminal Justice Act panel lawyers who, like fixers, get called in when the federal public defender's office can't get particularly troublesome defendants to stick with their assigned attorneys. Sometimes the clients are intransigent or mentally ill. Sometimes they just hate lawyers.
"If we can't get one of those four to do it, then we're in trouble," Acting Federal Public Defender Geoffrey A. Hansen said. "They are tremendously, tremendously helpful."
The list is rarely used and isn't set in stone, but it currently counts, in order of seniority by years in practice, Michael Stepanian, Richard B. Mazer, Garrick S. Lew and George C. Boisseau.
"The list pretty much existed in my head or [CJA Panel Administrator] Ruben Deang's," said former Federal Public Defender Barry Portman, who retired at the end of the year. "It's just lawyers that you know that are skilled at getting along with clients who are difficult." Now the list is Hansen's.
Portman remembered one case in which he was the assigned counsel for a man who had threatened to kill the president. The client fired Portman and decided to represent himself, but the court named Stepanian as his advisory counsel. The case went to trial, with Stepanian as co-counsel, examining witnesses and handling closing arguments. In the end, the jury hung.
"Mike just did the most magnificent job with a client that had both serious mental issues and was very intelligent," Portman said. Stepanian added that his client hadn't showered in 11 months.
Stepanian knows when he's gotten the call because Deang will speak in a quiet, soothing tone, saying something benign like, "What are you doing tomorrow?"
The next thing Stepanian knows, he's representing a violent cage fighter accused of refusing to pay child support who has gone through a string of lawyers, the last of whom he lunged at. Also, the cage fighter from Vacaville can't stand lawyers.
But Stepanian is no shrinking violet. He's a six-foot, 240-pound hunter and fisherman.
"I approached him the way I would approach a dangerous animal," Stepanian said. With his footwork, hand movements, body language and expression, Stepanian showed his client he wasn't a threat.
"We essentially got along," Stepanian said. By getting the man's case resolved, Stepanian not only helped his client but also the system, which suffers from the expense and delay caused by lawyer-incompetence filings and general client intransigence.
"I'm never going to grow up," he says. "The best part of criminal law is the criminal lawyers. We get along, and we have fun dealing with these cockamamie clients."
The Law Office of Michael Stepanian takes pride in announcing Jennie Stepanian as an associate of the firm. Our area of practice will continue to be criminal defense, white collar, tax litigation, and local counsel in State and Federal Courts.