Going offline helps me plug in to clients
By Sajid Khan
I recently walked into a pool with my cellphone in my pocket. After about five minutes of frolicking in the water, my mistake dawned on me and I begrudgingly pulled the soaking phone out. My friends told me to immerse it in rice for the next day or two to help save it. So began 36 long hours without my cellphone. I no longer had it to pull out and stare at as I walked to court or to glance at while I conversed with colleagues or friends. I couldn’t distract myself with it as I interacted with family at home. I quickly ran out of patience with the rice remedy and tethered myself to a new phone after that day and a half window of what life was like before my phone became a body fixture.
The day after my phone drowned, a public defender colleague told me about a conversation she had with an in custody client in court. The client, who my colleague had appeared with before, signaled her over to the jury box where he sat. He proceeded to tell her that they had gone to the same elementary school, that he recognized and remembered her. They sat there in the “box” together for the next hour, catching up on life, mutual friends and former classmates, discussing his path to jail and his hopes for change, trading thoughts on God; a meandering, beautiful conversation that transpired as the courtroom swirled in action around them.
The confluence of being phone-less and hearing about my colleague’s interaction prompted me to reflect on the hundreds of conversations I’ve had with clients in places like the “box”, courtroom holding cells, courthouse hallways and my office. At the forefront of my mind, though, were the exchanges my clients and I share in jail interview rooms, rooms barren of anything more than a table and two chairs.
Lawyers are prohibited from bringing cell phones into Santa Clara County jails; my phone stays behind in my car’s glove compartment or in a jail locker. Painfully stripped of this device, I enter these often tiny interview rooms with nothing but a file, a pen and a notepad. The client is escorted or directed in by a correctional officer and seated across from me within arm’s reach, the only buffer between us a rickety small desk. The door closes and existence, in those moments, is just my client and I. No longer in touch with the outside world. No where else to look, no one else to talk to. No Twitter or Facebook to check, no text message alerts or ringtones to interrupt us. The client and I, in that room together, face to face, an intense intimacy.
In those unfettered moments, we engage one another, scratch beneath the surface, find depths that would otherwise be blocked by my browsing instagram or checking an unnecessary email. By looking at my client rather than my phone, I see them beyond their charges and rap sheet, witness their humanity. I am able to truly listen, to hear their stories of successes but also of potential unfulfilled, family members dead, loves lost, victimization at the hands of oppressors, struggles with dependence on harmful behaviors and substances. I serve as a safety net for their blemishes, scars, and shameful memories while drawing out and understanding their goals, hopes and desired outcomes.
In that space free from technology, we connect. Authenticity, honesty and trust thrive. It’s in those moments and in those rooms untethered from devices that I’ve shared tears and unforgettable conversations with clients. There was the client who talked about growing up in the foster care system. The client who shared his thoughts on God and fate, only for us to both realize that we shared the Muslim faith. There was the juvenile client who, like me, lost his father at a young age. The client who shared his struggles with adapting to being a new father. In those desolate rooms, I have discovered that despite our superficial differences, my clients and I are the same. I have been reminded that we were all kids once, that we’re all humans with families, successes, struggles, dreams, stories, failures, lapses in judgement and addictions.
In reflecting upon those priceless conversations with my clients, hearing about my colleague’s invaluable experience with hers and experiencing those 36 hours without my phone, I realize that my daily interactions with family, friends, colleagues, strangers and community members should be more like those with my clients in those cell phone free jail interview rooms. I need to put my phone away once in awhile, look up, be present, engage, listen. It’s time that I untangle myself from my wireless phone so that I can truly connect with those around me, experience their humanity, and enjoy the beautiful, meandering conversations of life.