Lots of Stress, No Glamour

A criminal trial lawyer’s life is filled with stress and doesn’t have the glamour of counterparts on television shows.
Allen M. Smallwood knows. He has spent 32 years as a criminal defense lawyer in Tulsa, a career he does not regret.
Smallwood’s work as a criminal defense lawyer started in the mid 1970s and he wasn’t a licensed lawyer at that time.
But he represented those clients — with their permission and under the supervision of a licensed attorney — under an Oklahoma Bar Association program allowing law students to obtain a limited license prior to graduation.
Smallwood, who had spent two years in the U.S. Marine Corps that included a tour in Vietnam, is a member of the Class of ’75 University of Tulsa College of Law.
The Tulsa native and Nathan Hale High School graduate, Class of 1965, recalled those days in the 1970s when he took advantage of the intern opportunity.
‘‘Pete Silva, now Tulsa County Public Defender, and I were in the same law school class and had an opportunity to work in the Public Defender’s office even though we weren’t fully licensed attorneys at that time,’’ he said. ‘‘We had a small work area under a staircase where we interviewed all people assigned to us.’’
The interviews led Smallwood to ask sponsoring attorney Les Earl whether or not he could try a criminal case.
Earl’s answer was to get permission from the client.
Permission received, Smallwood went to court to represent a man accused of molesting his daughter.
Smallwood lost that case, but it spurred his desire to continue in criminal defense. Within six months, he was involved in seven jury trials, getting two acquittals.
Hanging out his ‘‘shingle’’ in 1975 to practice law, he and Paul Brunton worked together until 1992.
After that, Smallwood was a sole practitioner, performing all the roles of a senior partner, junior partner, file clerk — and taking out the trash.
‘‘Working as a solo practitioner is my choice,’’ he admits. ‘‘I didn’t want to work for a large law firm. This has worked out well for me.’’
People don’t understand the role of a criminal defense lawyer.
That is the service needed by the other guy. They don’t even think about someone in this role until they need legal help, or they are seeking assistance for a son, grandson, another member of the family or even a friend.
Smallwood doesn’t assess the innocence or guilt of a client. That isn’t his job.
Instead, he when he takes a case, he investigates the alleged allegations.
‘‘My role is to defend the person to the best of my ability whether or not he committed the offense,’’ he said. It is up to the jury to determine innocence or guilt.
He likes to use the analogy of Richard Nixon when considering a case.
Nixon was never charged or convicted of a crime, though many people thought he was guilty of wrongdoing, Smallwood said. The criminal defense lawyer is charged with investigating a case as thoroughly as possible to prevent a person from wrongfully being sent to prison.
That is a stressful role.
While many cases are not emotional, there are other times when Smallwood wakes up in the middle of the night wondering if he had completed a particular task, why he didn’t ask a particular question during a preliminary hearing, searching his mind for something that possibly might have been missed in preparing the defense.
‘‘I personally believe that I must be as well prepared as possible when defending a client,’’ Smallwood said.
He tensed and his voice rose as he expressed feelings about the number of people wrongfully convicted.
Many people have been sent to prison for offenses, including capital crimes they didn’t commit.
It is unimaginable the amount of pressure a defense attorney feels when on the receiving end of the federal or state government with the resources to put people in prison or even take their lives.
It is a thin line and a person’s fate can be decided by a jury almost by the toss of a coin. A man wrongfully who has been misidentified can face a long prison term based on testimony of witnesses thinking he is the offender.
Just 35 years ago, the mindset of people toward someone convicted of murder was that they should be executed for their crime. That harsh stance has softened somewhat, even in conservative Oklahoma.
Science is a wonderful tool in criminal defense, Smallwood continued. Until the use of DNA testing was accepted about 25 years ago, there were people on death row who had been facing execution for something they didn’t do.
DNA testing proved some of these people indeed were innocent of the crime of which they were convicted. With new evidence, they were freed.
Looking back at the number of executions in this country since the beginning of the 20th Century, there is no doubt that many innocent people were put to death.
Pressures on the criminal defense lawyer are intense, Smallwood said. ‘‘I have tried three capital murder cases and thankfully, none of those convicted have been executed.’’
Those cases were enormously stressful, but at the same time can be satisfying because the lawyer representing a client on these charges must the work to the best of his or her ability. It involves preparing a solid defense, picking a jury and making the best possible argument to convince them of a person’s innocence.
‘‘Not guilty’’ are the two best words in the English language, he said.
Smallwood was involved in the high profile defense of Larry Chaney in 1977. He was accused of the double murder of two women. He got the case from Tommy Frazier.
After Chaney was convicted and received the death sentence the appeals started. This included four trips to the U.S. Supreme Court. Finally, the death sentence was modified to life in prison by the appeals court.
Doing a final assessment of the Chaney case, Smallwood estimated that he earned about $1.80 per hour for his work over seven years.
‘‘I was 29 years old when I started working on the case and 37 when it ended,’’ he said. ‘‘I had a lot more energy at that time than I have now.’’
Long hours, from 6:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. or later five days a week are routine for the solo practitioner. There have been seven-day workweeks.
Those long, stressful hours are part of the reason there is such a high suicide rate among criminal trial lawyers, Smallwood continued. ‘‘I have learned there is life outside the profession and how to get away from it. In addition, there have been programs on stress relief offered by the Tulsa County Bar Association and Oklahoma Bar Association.’’
Others didn’t.
Those attorneys were not good at taking care of themselves, had strong egos and couldn’t balance life with the courtroom.
He balances his work with his wife Barbara who has adapted to being a partner with an attorney involved in trying people accused of crimes.
The legal profession has problems, Smallwood admitted. There are some attorneys who should improve their work standards or should not be practicing at all.
He smiled as he thought about people’s lawyer-bashing attitude.
‘‘Many people come to me seeking help and will say what a great guy or gal their attorney is. But they consider all other lawyers a dirty SOB.’’
Despite that attitude, Smallwood says he gets a great deal of satisfaction out of helping someone, showing they that the majority of lawyers really are honest, hardworking people doing their jobs by providing professional services.
Smallwood, 60, says he would make one major change if he were to start his career as a criminal defense lawyer again.
‘‘I would associate myself with Ed Park or the late Pat Williams, carrying their briefcase three or four years, asking questions, learning,’’ he continued. ‘‘Being a solo practitioner, I didn’t have anyone that could answer some questions about issues found in a case.’’
Smallwood doesn’t anticipate retiring.
He also doesn’t watch television shows involving lawyers or the law.
‘‘I can’t sit down,’’ he said. ‘‘Based on my experience and observations of others, it is almost impossible to stay retired. Besides, I find it difficult to say ‘no’.’’

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