Caitlin Lynch (Barnard, B.A. in History, 2012; UCLA, J.D., 2016) is a public defender in California. BarnardHistoryBlog invites her to share insights on how her history training has helped prepare her for the challenging job.
My favorite classes at Barnard focused on the history of a concept that I had not previously contemplated had a history: psychological history, economic history, cultural history. I loved tracing the lines that lead our present points back to their nascence, learning about the competing versions of events that unfolded over time. I was tested on historical facts while a student at Barnard, but I don’t have a memory for battle names or treaty dates. Instead, what I remember is: there is probably more to the story, if we care to dig.
Like many before me, this interest in understanding the “whys” of the present led me to law school, and, ultimately, to pursue work as a public defender. For historians and public defenders alike, context is everything. Historians try to understand the conditions under which certain events transpired long ago. Public defenders will sort through the conditions of a more recent event for the exact same reasons: to understand what happened.
For example, when evaluating the legality of a police search, we ask ourselves, “What could a police officer have seen from that vantage point?” When considering possible defenses, we ask ourselves, “Was our client at the scene when the incident occurred?” or “Were they in fear for their safety?” The goal is to understand what actually happened—with a historian’s appreciation that two people can tell two completely different versions of the same story.
When a case comes to my desk, I first learn about it through the charging document—the complaint, drafted by the district attorney—as well as the police reports. These are important documents, but the most essential part of the initial case work up comes from speaking with the client directly. As any oral historian will know, these conversations give life and nuance to the technical legal documents—and they are some of my favorite parts of the job.
I began my current job in the middle of the Covid-19 pandemic, which added a whole different layer of context to my experience. While many other court systems have gone virtual or radically altered their trial schedules, in my district, things are still largely happening in person. I go to court every day, and meet with clients in custody, but with face masks and hand sanitizer. It can be challenging, but it is also a great privilege to do this work. When historians look back on how different corners of the world weathered the pandemic, I am glad that I will be counted among the public defenders—and I have Barnard to thank for helping me think the way that I do.