Stop Asking Where I'm From

“The Worst They Can Say Is No:” What I’ve learned about bravery

Written By: humarashid - Sep• 03•13

My career, fledgling though it is, has been transformative. There is no doubt about that. It has changed me in many ways I see clearly, and many ways that I’m sure I don’t – yet. I thrill to each new discovery about myself, and my character, and my outlook, and I’m sure I’ll keep growing from this wonderful experience.

Devastating as it is at times.

After all, it’s never fun to look someone in the eyes and say that they’re going to prison for several years for something they didn’t do.

(And even when they did it, it’s still hard to say that. But maybe I’m just a bleeding heart. I JUST WANT TO HUG EVERYONE, YOU GUYS.)

One of the biggest changes, and certainly the most positive change I see in myself, is that I’m growing far braver, and far more confident.

It’s an interesting kind of bravery, though. It’s probably not the selfless, grand sort of bravery that inspires people to run into burning buildings to save toddlers; it’s probably not even the sort of hard and hard-won bravery that moves others to speak truth to power and fight for the little guy. (Although there’s some of that as well.)

No, this is more of a “fuck it” kind of bravery.

And, having never possessed such bravery before, I’m totally okay with being a “fuck it” kind of brave person. Although, maybe I can’t liken this nuance of bravery to confidence? Maybe I should liken it to good old fashioned recklessness, or incorrigibility. Hah. Seems fair.

Had you asked me even a couple months ago, when I was a super-baby-associate, if it were better to try and fail, or not to try at all, I would have replied, with only slight hesitation, that it was better not to try at all.

Because that’s just how I’ve lived most of my life.

And isn’t that kind of pathetic? Somewhere along the line, I have developed a pathological fear of failure and rejection. It’s caused me to be stilted in some ways, suffering from arrested development in the sense that when it comes to chances that most people took early on in life, I’m still kind of dipping my toe in the water and analyzing the positives and negatives.

(Just jump in, damn it!)

From what I’ve read, this near-pathological fear of failure and/or rejection is part and parcel of the damage that is created thanks to the idea of the Model Minority, and Asians are the model minority. I won’t quibble about who’s more of a Model Minority – East Asians or us South Asians – because that’s not beneficial to the discussion.

But the Model Minority myth, which includes stereotypes like Asians are smart, Asians are really good at math, Asians study all the time, harms our communities very directly and pervasively. Tied to the Model Minority myth, which is imposed on our cultures by largely white hegemonic discourses, is the idea of what we do to ourselves, within our own cultures.

And by that I mean, specifically, the emphasis in Asian cultures on obeying parents and meeting (exceeding) their expectations, which are very often education and career-related.

You couple that very serious desire to please your parents by working hard, with the idea that any failure, no matter how small, brings with it dishonor to the family, and it’s easy to see how we can develop pretty pathological fears of rejection, inferiority, failure, whatever you want to call it.

Again, this isn’t exclusive to Asians, and I’m not claiming that kind of exclusivity as I’m sure there are a lot of people who can relate. But the way this relates to and is part of the Model Minority idea is very real, and very damaging.

Also, let this inspire you to perhaps think twice before you turn to your Asian friend and say, “But you’re supposed to be good at math!” or something like that. It’s a racist microaggression and it advances the Model Minority myth in harmful ways, regardless of the fact that it’s considered a ‘positive’ stereotype.

So my fear of failure and rejection, which I still deal with and which still colors my life and my actions, has kept me from doing a lot of things. (Which is obviously no one’s fault but my own. This isn’t a pity party.)

And, as I said, it’s why I generally believed, for a long time, that it was better to not try than it was to try and fail. If you didn’t try, you were safe. You were safe from the crushing sadness of defeat. You were just safe.

It took a while, but I finally had an epiphany and realized why that was bullshit. I can’t even say that it was any specific moment that inspired me to that particular understanding. I just woke up one day, overheard someone at a coffee shop ask that of someone else, and realized that I no longer believed what I once did.

It’s totally better to try and fail than to not try anything, at all, ever.

Sure, it might be safe not to do anything to begin with, but safe at what cost?

It’s pretty pathetic, too, how long it took me to snap out of it and realize that trying and failing was its own blessing. It helps you grow as a person. It’s a little primer in how to deal with defeat and inadequacy. It helps push you to try harder. And it helps you figure out what doesn’t work, so that you can cross it off and try something else.

And I realized that it was my professional development that brought along this general understanding. Were I not doing what I do, I doubt that I would have had this revelation as I did.

One of the first things that my boss told me when I was hired, when the two of us would head to court, when he did all the hearings on my motions before gradually turning more of those hearings over to me as I started to get my sea legs, when we first lost on motions that had poured my sweat and tears into … One of the first things he told me when we got to that stage was, “We are going to lose most of the time.”

It struck me as kind of odd, the way he said it. With such certainty. “Don’t take it personally. Because we are going to lose most of the time. Most of what we ask for? It will be denied.”

If anyone else said it, I’d have expected an air of futility. After all, if you’re going to be denied most of the time, why bother? Why keep doing it?

But at that stage in my fledgling career, I was already starting to see why we kept at it. First of all, each case is unique. Each client is unique. Each prosecutor is unique. Each judge is unique. Each county is unique. Each working file of discovery is unique.

Just because something didn’t work in one case doesn’t mean it won’t work in another case, with slightly different facts. Just because one option for alternative sentencing wasn’t a good fit for one client doesn’t mean it won’t work for another client, who is a different person. Just because one prosecutor wouldn’t hear of something, doesn’t meant that the other won’t listen, at least, when you make the pitch. Just because one judge never grants some certain kind of request doesn’t mean another won’t, or at the very least, won’t listen to you and give you a fair chance to be heard.

There is this one motion that Raymond and I always file in every single felony case. We’re always preparing for trial, in every single case, so we file it as a motion in limine, asking that at trial, the State not be allowed to refer to our client as the Defendant, and not be allowed to refer to the complaining witness as the Victim. We argue that it’s prejudicial.

There are reasons we file it in every case (although the other motions in limine that we file are obviously unique to the case, and we spend a lot of time thinking and analyzing and plotting what motions in limine we will actually write and move forward with). The most simple-minded reason to file that motion is that sometimes, in a blue moon, it’s granted. Raymond has had cases where the judge agreed and barred the State from using those terms at trial before the jury. But the other reason is that, during the hearing on the motion, you can tell a lot about how the State will try the case. If they argue it real simple, you get the sense that they’re going to try the case real simple. It’s a strategy move that can sometimes tell you a lot about how a particular trial will go.

So that’s part of it – you can learn a lot from the failure. Failure can be strategic in its own way.

Another reason that we keep at it, even though we know we’re going to be denied most of the time, aside from the “uniqueness” argument, is that the stakes are high. The stakes are high in every case. Sure, there’s a difference between having your license suspended and serving thirty to life in a federal prison … but for each person that comes to us, this is the only case they have (sometimes) and the stakes are high to them. Losing your license is a big deal, if that’s what could happen to you. Thirty to life is a big deal, if that’s what could happen to you.

The stakes are high in all of our cases. Real people are affected. Families are affected. We have to keep hustling in every single one. We have to try everything we can – everything that we think might make a difference. And we have to take those losses we sustain and turn them around and adapt and use them to our benefit. And I’ve seen Raymond do that again and again – sometimes, I’m amazed at the sweetness of the lemonade he makes when we get lemons. And the best part is that he’s teaching me to think the same way.

We were in his SUV one day, heading down a country highway to Kankakee to visit a prisoner in order to prepare for an upcoming federal trial. Raymond wore his shades and drove with one hand, as I sat tense and stressed in the passenger seat, trying not to fidget and wishing I’d popped a painkiller before the trip down. This was a case where we’d been beaten up from the start, and we knew we’d get beaten up at trial.

“When you get hit,” he said, “you don’t just fall down and take it. When you get punched in the mouth, you fall back, you taste the blood … and then you get fucking angry.”

He looked over at me and grinned. “And you use that anger. Because anger on its own doesn’t help anybody. You gotta use that anger. That’s what we do.”

And we do. Anger, when channeled properly, can be a sustaining force. I’ve seen that, and I’ve utilized that.

Another reason that we keep at it is very simple and tied to what I’ve already talked about: that’s advocacy, plain and simple. Doesn’t matter how tired you are, doesn’t matter how many times you’ve failed before, doesn’t matter if your client “did it” or not: that’s advocacy.

And it reminds me of what my boss texted me right before a big trial: “Advocates extraordinaire, we are!” I screencapped that and I look at it whenever I’m feeling down and tired. It helps.

Very closely tied to this is another reason why we keep at it: a lot of the times, we’re the only support system our client has. A lot of the time, we have people who don’t get support from their family members. Who can’t talk to them. Who don’t have good relationships with them. Who are alone.

And we’re the only ones that they can come to for support – the only ones that are in their corner. And that’s humbling.

That is well and truly humbling, to occupy that role in someone’s life. And it makes failures worth it.

So for all of these reasons, I’ve learned why failure is worth it, and why we keep at it. Every situation is unique, so one failure doesn’t set the bar. Just because you failed once doesn’t mean you won’t win it. Failure also teaches you things – even if it takes a while, or even if it’s a lesson you weren’t even aware of. Failure can be worth it in connection to the human aspect: it unites people in the struggle and can deepen bonds.

This has been a great way for me to learn that it’s better to try and fail than to not try at all.

Not trying at all kept me safe, sure. But it kept me small.

Trying and failing makes me grow bigger and larger than I was before. Every single time, I feel bigger and larger after I fail. Sure, I feel small for a little while. And then I put it in perspective, and I feel big. I almost look forward to the next time I fail, because I’ll have learned even more.

(I’m not knocking wins – I learn a shit-ton when I win, too!)

And it’s that knowledge – that I don’t have to be afraid of trying and failing – that pushes me and drives me on.

It’s what enables me to strut up to a prosecutor and negotiate without thought of anything but how it can help my client, and how I can continue to manipulate the case for my client’s best benefit.

Because the worst the State can say is no, right?

It’s what enables me to write a motion that I know is doomed to be denied, and pack it full of case law and examples and persuasive rhetoric and, yes, infuse it with my own feelings while writing it.

Because the worst the Judge can say is no, right?

It’s what enables me to stand up for a hearing and argue based on my motions even if the evidence or circumstances or whatever are stacked against me.

Because the worst the Judge can say is no, right?

It’s almost liberating, in a way. Failing that many times is almost liberating, because it teaches you not to be afraid of failure, and it teaches you that even if you lose, you win in other ways (the ways I discussed briefly above). In that way, it’s like you have nothing to lose, really, because if you win, you win, and if you lose, you still learned something helpful that you can move forward with.

Another important thing is that the nature of the criminal justice system, and the way that the defense is usually at a disadvantage, forces you to find wins where others would find only a loss. The simplest way I can explain it is that if the Government is asking for 10 years for your client, and you get that down to 4 and a half years, that’s a win.

It’s 4.5 years in a federal prison, but it’s a win. It’s one of our wins.

One of my wins was when I was before a judge that “normally” gave 40 days in Cook County jail for the kind of offense my guy committed. And to have him taken into custody IMMEDIATELY. The rubber-stamping aspect of it bothered me, but what can you do?

I’ll tell you what I did: I argued and argued before the judge (the State wasn’t putting up a fight at all to what I wanted – it was the judge that rejected the agreement we’d reached). I got him to come off the 40, and I got him down to 20. Not 20 straight, which meant 20 days, but 20 days served day for day, so 10 days. And I somehow managed to get my client a self-surrender date for a week out.

So not only did I buy us some time for my client to take care of something he REALLY needed to take care of, but I got the jail sentence cut to 1/4 of the original sentence that the judge apparently “normally” gives in these cases.

My client had to go to jail. But it was a win. It was a big win.

Another one of my wins was when I had a client up for a bond hearing, who lied to me about his criminal background. Significantly. I found out about his rather extensive background when the State read aloud his rap sheet at the hearing, before the judge. Which left me with like 20 seconds to restructure my entire argument.

Oh, and this was a gun case, earlier this year, in Chicago, and the bond hearing was at 26th & Cali. And my client had several violence-related crimes in his background.

So. Yeah.

At that point I was thinking that if I got a bond of $100,000, or $10,000 to walk, it would be a GIFT.

And in the end, the judge listened very patiently to my 2-3 minute spiel, cocked his head, and calmly announced that the bond was set at $75,000. That is, $7,500 to walk.

Even though my client still couldn’t pay it, that was a HUGE FUCKING WIN. $7,500 on a gun case? With a background? Get out of here, that was huge.

And the way the prosecutors in that room looked at me as I walked out? Also a win. (The interpreter in the room told me that I was the only defense attorney that spoke for more than thirty seconds. So that’s presumably why they looked at me like that – I was an oddity.)

Where other people see only losses, Raymond and I (and other CDLs, to be sure) see small wins.

And that in itself is a blessing. The failure teaches you to be humble, and it teaches you to look for the positives, and it teaches you to relish them, to strive for them, and to be grateful.

When I can knock a misdemeanor out with nothing more than court supervision for a year, I’m grateful. When I can get a bond forfeiture vacated, with the original bond to stand, I’m grateful. When I can argue my way out of a dirty drop (that is, a drug test in which urine tests positive for some controlled substance) and avoid an increase in bond, I’m grateful.

These are small wins. To most people, these are barely wins at all. But they’re wins to me, because I appreciate them and I’m grateful for them. They’re not the big win, because those are rare. But they’re something.

They’re something we can feel good about.

So on a professional level, I’ve learned how not to fear failure, because we often deal with it, due in part to the nature of the criminal justice system where the odds are against us. Failure is an education in itself. Failure can come with blessings. And I’m beginning to see that more and more in my practice, not least of all because I have a boss who is a teacher, and a mentor, and helps me navigate this confusing world of criminal defense.

On a personal level, however, especially when dealing with men, I’m still working on it.


I’ll let you know how that goes.

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