Executive Spotlight: Katherine Grubbs, attorney in charge, Committee for Public Counsel Services

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PITTSFIELD — Long hours, low pay, constantly fighting uphill against often-long odds. It's not easy to be a public defender representing indigent defendants in state courts.

Those who choose to do this kind of work need to be compassionate and empathetic, said Katherine Grubbs, who ought to know.

Grubbs has spent her entire professional career as an attorney working for the state Committee for Public Counsel Services in its offices in Worcester, New Bedford and Fall River. Grubbs recently brought those skills to Pittsfield, where she recently was named attorney in charge of the CPCS office in the Berkshires after the retirement of Nathaniel Green, who had served in the position for 20 years.

We recently spoke with Grubbs about what led her to the law as a career, and why public defenders continue to do what they do.

Q: On your LinkedIn page, it says you were an English major in college (Middlebury) and received a master's in rhetoric/composition from SUNY-Albany. Why did you decide to pursue a career in the law?

A: I didn't go to law school until I was 36. Post-college, I worked in textbook publishing for four years, then in editorial and then in sales. Because I was in academic publishing, I had a lot of contacts with colleges and universities and community colleges, so I decided that teaching was more in line with my interest. So, I was in Albany, and I went to the master's program there.

My husband at the time was in the Navy. We were transferred out to the West Coast, so I entered the doctoral program in literature at UC-San Diego. We were out in San Diego for four years. I taught writing at UC-San Diego. Then he was transferred to Virginia.

I continued teaching for a few more years, working on my dissertation while teaching at the University of Maryland in College Park as an adjunct writing teacher.

Q: Did you ever receive your doctorate?

A: I wasn't going to be able to finish my dissertation. It's kind of hard to imagine now, but remote work [in the 1990s] was really difficult. The internet was just emerging. My dissertation committee was in San Diego. ... I was going to get a doctorate in teaching — writing in composition is the academic term for that. ... I thought through teaching and writing I could encourage undergraduate writing as a way to craft social change. But, not very many undergraduates are very interested in that. I would have one or two a semester, and it was just disillusioning.

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Q: So, you turned to the law?

A: I saw an article in The Washington Post about a program that the law school at American University had been pushing that was looking into gender and workplace equality, but through law school. And I thought, "Oh, that's interesting, maybe I can help forward social change in a positive way by becoming a lawyer."

We were living in Silver Spring [Md.] at the time, so I went to law school in Baltimore.

Q: You've been a public defender for 14 years, your entire career. Why did you choose that path after law school?

A: The first clerkship I had after my first year was with the Montgomery County Public Defender's Office in Maryland. My supervisor there took me to visit her clients, and I had never been to visit a jail. That really was the first time that I would point to when I knew being a public defender was what I wanted to do, because it was eye-opening, horrifying.

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It was very clear to me that jail was punitive and not rehabilitative at all. ... The way people were housed and treated there was shocking to me. The summer after my second year, I worked at the D.C. Public Defender's Office, which was an amazing place.

Q: What are the people you represent like?

A: You have to remember that many of a public defender's clients are not only dealing with social constraints that we may never understand, but many of them have had strikes against them before they were even born, when they were in the womb, just from what their mother was exposed to at that time. ... It was very moving and eye-opening.

Being around people who are passionate about working with and protecting people who live on the margins of society is very moving. Our clients are the most vulnerable people out there, and most of society ignores or despises them. And, we fight to change that.

Q: Based on what you've told me, it sounds like you were a person who was looking for a cause and found one.

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A: Yes.

Q: Are you the type of person for whom a cause really means something?

A: I think that sometimes the idea of working toward social justice in a public way has been sort of misconstrued as only being people who are very loud about that and sort of in your face about being an activist. ... But, me, personally, I'm not a particularly loud or in-your-face person. ... I have known public defenders through the time I have been with CPCS who are fundamentalist Christians who believe this work is part of their mission as a Christian.

Then you have people at the other end of the political spectrum who see it more as fighting against an oppressive social system. So, there are many different motivations.

Personality-wise, we're often different. But, if you're going to stick with this job ... we're not well-paid, the hours are very long, you don't win very often. What you have to be is compassionate about the work and extremely empathetic about our clients. Those are qualities that all public defenders that I know share.

Q: What are the most rewarding and frustrating parts about being a public defender?

A: There are a lot of rewarding parts. I really enjoy working with other attorneys. I really enjoy supervising other attorneys. Whenever you win anything, it's a wonderful moment, whether it's a motion or the judge decided to go with your recommendation or a plea or whether it's a big trial. Those are all just memorable in a great way.

The toughest part is when the humanity of our clients is ignored. We spend a lot of time, also, particularly in court, working toward humanizing our clients and trying to get the other court personnel, the district attorneys, judges, probation officers, to see our clients as fellow humans and not bad people. That is a very challenging task. We are often unsuccessful. ... That, for me, is one of the frustrating aspects.

Q: What's it like replacing someone like Nathaniel Green, who had been in charge of the Berkshire office for so long?

A: Obviously, big shoes to fill. He was here for a very long time. ... I don't think I will be changing much in terms of the office's culture, because he did a wonderful job as the head of the office and I don't necessarily want to mess with things that are working well.


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