GUEST REVIEWER: PROFESSOR SARA JACOBSON
Reading the foreword to the book will ruin it too, but if you avoid that chapter, and the last paragraph of this review, with its spoilers, you’ll find WOMEN FOR THE DEFENSE an engaging, worthwhile read.
The premise of the book is that noted defense attorney Andrea Lyon has assembled nine female defense attorneys to talk about their experiences as criminal defense attorneys and as women. The group she assembles is a formidable, diverse bunch. It includes lawyers at all stages of their careers- from just starting out to enough years in to know better, and from current defense superstars to those who have just left the profession. The group has great racial, age, and geographic diversity as well, and includes both state and federal defenders, private criminal defense attorneys, and women who have left criminal defense as their day-to-day vocation to go onto policy work or other litigation. The breadth of perspective this diversity brings provides richness to the dialogue.
Andrea Lyon herself is an impressive figure in criminal defense. She began her career in the Cook County (Chicago) Public Defender’s Office and founded the Illinois Capital Resource Center in 1990. She frequently contributes to the Huffington Post on criminal law topics and has won many awards for her successes as a death penalty lawyer. Her academic career spans clinical programs in criminal defense across three law schools, and she recently stepped down as the Dean of Valparaiso Law School. The breadth of her experience positioned her well to recruit an interesting, diverse panel, and to push the women in this book to open up about their lives as women in criminal defense.
The book covers the major, broad topics often asked of criminal defense attorneys by the unwitting. Following an introduction section that covers how each attorney came to her career in criminal defense, the book delves into topics like how a defense attorney can represent the accused and whether a woman in criminal defense really can have it all. It tackles each topic through the lens of the female experience. Among the best parts of the book is a lengthy chapter on navigating the courtroom as a woman in a white man’s world. The strength of the chapter is that it does not shy away from perhaps controversial yet incontrovertibly essential topics like how gender and race impact the lives of female lawyers in the courtroom and in navigating office politics. The women whose voices contribute to the discussion give very open and very real answers to the questions posed. It is their honesty throughout this chapter and the entire book which makes the narrative compelling and gives the book its power.
Which brings us to the ‘spoiler’ part of this review, and the part you should skip (along with the forward to the book, which also reveals what I’ll discuss below) for maximum enjoyment of it, since this is a book that’s worth the time.
SKIP THIS SPOILER PARAGRAPH TO FULLY ENJOY THE BOOK-> While the best and most enjoyable things about this book are the truths the women share and their willingness to open up about individual experiences, the book grates in its artifice. The premise of the book is that all the ‘panelists’ are together having one conversation together at a Women’s History Month panel. In reality, though, no such panel ever occurred. Lyon interviewed each woman individually over the course of time and then wove their answers in those interviews together, using the fictional panel essentially as a plot device to keep the piece engaging. It does that, but, just like any good closing argument where a jury can see the rhetorical ploy behind the message, the book’s overarching inauthenticity undercuts its credibility. Moments where Lyon, as “moderator,” comments on what a woman is wearing or what Lyon believes the woman’s tremulous emotional state to be when answering a question, feel contrived and a bit bizarre if you know the panel is a farce; and the seemingly very authentic answers from the women interviewed and the fiction of the greater piece clash. The result is a bit of a mishmash, which leaves the reader wondering whether to believe it.