The Work We Do: Interesting Jobs in the Seattle Area To say that Christine Sanders is a busy woman would be the understatement of the year. Between fighting for the public and parenting two young girls, Christine has weeks during which she barely has time to breath. Christine is a full-time Public Defender for Snohomish County by day and a mother to her two girls, Hattie and Hanna Rae, by night. That said, I considered my hour-long interview with Christine a privilege at its finest. When we met at Macrina Bakery in Queen Anne, Christine had just finished an exhausting two-week trial during which she admits, “My kids didn’t see me for weeks.” Christine ordered a double short cappuccino to fuel her for her next laborious adventure: an afternoon trial in Vancouver followed by a weekend ski trip to Oregon with her family. In the small amount of spare time she has, Christine prioritizes family time and enjoys being active with her husband Rob (pictured above) and their daughters. After hearing her stories, my biggest question for Christine was, “How do you do it?” As I ventured into more specific questions, Christine shared stories about her cases and clients and gave us a sneak peek into the exciting life of a public defense lawyer.
Cardinal: Could you start by giving us a basic description of your job?
Christine: Well, I’m a trial attorney, which means that I do a lot of research and writing for briefs and then I argue whatever my position is in jury trials. Since I work in public defense, my clients and cases can range anywhere from sex offenders to third-degree murder cases.
Cardinal: What led you to choose and pursue this career?
Christine: It probably had something to do with my oldest brother. I always liked to argue when I was growing up. I liked to debate things and it seemed like being a trial attorney was close to what I like to do. I really wanted to do something in public interest law rather than working for a corporation. Not that there is anything wrong with that, it’s just not my thing. I wanted to work with people who needed help and needed someone to fight for them.
Cardinal: What kind of preparation was required for this job?
Christine: Mostly just law school back then. It is a little different now because the job market is so dismal. We tend to get a lot of experienced attorneys applying for jobs now, but you mostly get training for trials on the job. I didn’t do anything in criminal law while I was in law school, but when I moved to Seattle I started writing criminal law appeals and volunteered at a couple trial agencies before I got hired. You start with misdemeanors and really small offenses and work your way up.
Cardinal: So it wasn’t hard to find your job?
Christine: Not particularly. It took me about eight months to find the firm I’m at now because the job market was pretty tough and filled with lots of experienced attorneys, which is why I ended up at Snohomish County rather than King County. Snohomish County really is the best place to work though because it’s smaller and more organized.
Cardinal: What is your favorite part of your job?
Christine: Well, let’s see…I really enjoy being in trial. It keeps me busy, but it’s enjoyable. You’re doing research; you’re writing; you’re arguing; there’s a lot going on. Working on a criminal trial can be stressful because you have to actually cross-examine the victim, and it’s hard to do that without seeming like you’re attacking. That’s not my natural instinct to question the victims that way.
Cardinal: It must be difficult to argue the unfavorable side.
Christine: It is, at times. Sometimes we’ll have a victory of sorts if the jury ties instead of ruling against us which happens most frequently.
Cardinal: What is your least favorite part of your job?
Christine: My least favorite part would have to be getting the verdict. Those moments between your closing argument and waiting for the verdict are very stressful.
Cardinal: What has been the most interesting case you’ve worked with?
Christine: I had a case when I was pregnant with my oldest daughter that involved a young woman, who was an immigrant from the former Soviet Union, and she was pregnant and she didn’t know it. She ended up giving birth by herself, and the baby ended up not surviving, so they charged her with murder. So, that was interesting but tragic. We won that one. Civil commitment cases are also interesting. Those usually involve kids who were very young when they offended. For example, maybe the offense involved a 19-year-old allegedly assaulting a 15-year-old who actually consented. Those are heartbreaking, but they are interesting to litigate. They’re like mini-criminal trials.
Cardinal: Is it hard to not get emotionally attached to clients?
Christine: Oh, I always get emotionally attached to my clients. Only a few of my clients are difficult to get emotionally attached to. I mean, they’re all human beings who were babies at one point and a lot of them were abused. Things aren’t typically black and white. Some of my clients are definitely damaged human beings with some diagnosed personality disorders. Some people are difficult to deal with, but they’re all interesting in their own way.
Cardinal: And your clients usually express remorse for their actions in some way?
Christine: Oh yeah, totally. It’s rare that you would ever get a true sociopath.
Cardinal: But you have dealt with actual sociopaths in the past?
Christine: I would say yes. Even they can grow out of that though. It’s one of those things that’s most pronounced when someone is in their teens or their twenties. Sometimes a part of it is even out of their control. Some people are mentally ill or have some real impulse control issues. That occurs more in the criminal justice system, but we have dealt with some schizophrenic people.
Cardinal: One of the 12th grade English classes at SAAS just read the book, Lolita, narrated by a diagnosed pedophile. Do your cases ever deal with pedophilia?
Christine: That’s an interesting thing because pedophilia is often over-diagnosed. Many of the people who commit the crime of child molestation are not pedophiles. Pedophilia is not so much a disease as much as it is the way someone is wired. It’s like being heterosexual, homosexual, etc. It’s often just the way someone is. But we have represented pedophiles and it’s usually pretty obvious if that is the case; that really is their focus. No one really knows why it happens, but it’s very tragic.
Cardinal: So you knew you wanted to be a public defender rather than a prosecutor?
Christine: Yes. I’m sure there are nice prosecutors out there, but it really takes a certain type of personality to do that job, which just isn’t for me. I don’t think I could do that with certain cases.
Cardinal: So you don’t deal exclusively with sex offense cases?
Christine: Well, no not usually. It’s nice to have other kinds of cases to work with to really get a little bit of everything involved in public defense. Sometimes I do regular criminal trials that don’t involve sex offenses.
Cardinal: What would you say has been the highlight of your career thus far?
Christine: Well, let’s see…I’ve had a couple of jury verdicts in my favor. Those are rare, so they’re always exciting. It’s nice when I feel like justice is served. I lose an overwhelming amount of times. Juries usually favor the victim but it is nice when the fair result happens.
Cardinal: On that note, what has been a low point of your career?
Christine: Well, I have had cases that my client should have won, and that’s always a low point when the state doesn’t have the evidence to prevail, yet they do. My colleague Natalie just had a trial last week involving a juvenile sex offense case where the person on trial was 12 and the alleged victim was 3. She ended up losing that one, and she’s still sobbing. I mean, that kid has never been in trouble with the law and he’s barely even hit puberty and now he has to register as a sex offender and it’s never going to go away. That is a low point for the whole firm, especially the person who represents those kids. It’s heartbreaking.
Cardinal: You’re obviously very busy. Do you find it hard to balance your career and your personal life?
Christine: As my job gets more and more demanding, it can be hard. When I’m in trial, I am literally never home. I leave the house at seven in the morning and get back at seven at night or later. Luckily, my husband doesn’t have a very demanding job, and my kids are getting older, so it works out.
Cardinal: Have you ever rejected a case?
Christine: No, that’s pretty frowned upon as a public defender. There was one case I had when I was in criminal law, and the victim was kind of a train wreck and I didn’t want to cross-examine her. But I would have if I had to. And the man was convicted as he should have been, not that we didn’t do everything we could do to stop that as our jobs require. Certain things like that can be uncomfortable. But the jury did make the right decision on that case.
Cardinal: Is it hard to argue with everything you have when you agree that your client should be convicted, which I’m sure does happen occasionally?
Christine: Well, yes. Sometimes there is over-whelming evidence against my client, but I still do everything I can. That was the only case where my personal opinion was somewhat against my client, and I do believe justice was served. My concern really is my client. As an attorney, I can’t let my personal feelings enter into any of my work. Otherwise, I can’t effectively represent my client.
Cardinal: Do you have to travel for work often?
Christine: Not typically. That’s kind of a new thing. Just in the last few months I’ve had cases in Spokane, Port Angeles, and now Vancouver. But it’s not usual.
Cardinal: What is one piece of advice that you would give to young adults who wish to pursue this career?
Christine: I would definitely advise them to go to law school first of all, and then to take some sort of trial or public defense clinic in order to get some practical experience in court. That’s the biggest thing; just do whatever you can to get experience in trials, which really helps.