I envy my dentist. I know that runs contrary to conventional thinking, but it’s true. I envy him because as a dentist, he has the capacity to do what I, as a criminal lawyer, can never do.
I was a bad patient. I cracked a tooth and rather than tackle the problem, I ignored it, procrastinated and it eventually became a mini crisis. It cracked again, and over a period of months, a giant hole in the middle developed. One night at a cocktail party, without warning, it became excruciatingly painful, to the point of being unbearable. The next day I called my dentist, Dr. Jeffrey Cahn of Stamford, and his assistant squeezed me in for an emergency appointment. He gave me the bad news: “the tooth is abscessed, and there’s a massive infection in the root. You need root canal therapy and a crown,” he said. I grimaced. It sounded like I was headed in the direction of more pain and a lot of it. “I’m going to give you a prescription for an antibiotic and some painkillers and it should start feeling better right away,” he said. “You’re going to be O.K.”
Wow. What soothing words. I was going to stop feeling the excruciating pain. I was going to be O.K. Those are words I, as a criminal lawyer, don’t get to say very often. People come to me, quite frequently, after being arrested for very serious crimes. They are going through what probably is the worst experience of their life. The stress feels like their whole world is collapsing around them. And in that first meeting, I can tell them the range of penalties for what they are charged with, but I can’t tell them what the outcome will be. There are way too many variables and at that first meeting I have so precious little information to go on. What is the evidence against them, and how much of it do the prosecuting attorneys have, and how strong is that evidence? Which prosecutor and judge will be handling the case? What will the attitude of the victim be?
The truth is that if I’m honest I can’t give them a lot of good news, at all, only that I will dig hard to find a defense, fight hard to protect them and try my best to get them an acceptable resolution of their case. But I’m in the bad news business. I’m like the guide the military hires in foreign, hostile territory. I know the terrain like the back of my hand, but I can’t stop the bombs from falling or the mines from exploding. As an expert I can guide them through the painful experience, and minimize the damage where possible, but it’s still a minefield and it just might have a very bad outcome. In many cases, we’re going to have a long, drawn out process and a result that’s going to hurt, because they have committed a serious crime which will have very serious consequences. Their life may never be the same.
My dentist called me late that night to check up on me, a very caring and thoughtful thing to do, I thought. And I took the antibiotic that he prescribed. By the next evening the excruciating pain was subsiding and by the second day there was virtually no pain. The following week we started on the root canal treatment, and the tooth felt a whole lot better, just like my dentist said it would. I was O.K.
That must be nice to have a job where you can say with confidence, “you’re going to be O.K.” It might not be the most glamorous of occupations, but on most days he can predict the outcome and he can fix the problem. I don’t quite understand why it’s all not covered by my health insurance, but that’s an entirely different problem and one I don’t expect my dentist to solve.