The Office of Indigent Defense Services (IDS) is responsible for providing legal representation for indigent defendants and respondents in North Carolina. It is a small agency with a big job, spanning representation in criminal prosecutions, parental rights proceedings, involuntary commitment cases, and other cases affecting important rights. This blog post introduces Whitney Fairbanks, the new assistant director and general counsel of IDS. That position is often the point of contact for lawyers, court officials, and others involved with indigent defense. The following is from an interview I conducted of Whitney last week.
What did you do professionally before coming to IDS?
Most recently, I was an attorney with the Office of General Counsel of the North Carolina Administrative Office of the Courts. I worked there for three and a half years and specialized in criminal and juvenile law as it affects the North Carolina court system. I want to give a shout out to AOC. I got to work with a host of people there committed to making the court system work for North Carolinians.
Before I worked at AOC, I was the civil defender educator at the School of Government. I hope you remember that, John, since we worked together for five years. I was responsible for developing training and resources for a lot of different indigent defenders, including parent attorneys and juvenile defenders. I’m really proud of the work I did to create the School’s Collateral Consequences Assessment Tool (CCAT). I think it has helped raise awareness of all the ways that criminal convictions can follow people long after their criminal sentences are over. [CCAT is a free, searchable online database, available at http://ccat.sog.unc.edu]
Before working at the School, I was a public defender in Durham for three years. As a public defender, I was in court all the time. I’ve spent most of my professional career working with the North Carolina court system and indigent defense in particular.
So it’s natural to ask—what drew you to this work?
I went to law school in the Northwest, but I was born and raised in the southeast in Tennessee. After law school, I wanted to return home and apply my professional skills here. Plus, I missed the barbecue.
I returned to the southeast in 2003. IDS was a new agency at that point, and North Carolina was doing things in indigent defense that weren’t being done in other parts of the southeast or even the rest of the country. It was an exciting time to get involved here.
I never thought about doing anything other than helping people with my law degree. I went to law school because I wanted to give a voice to people who didn’t have a voice. In law school, I had the opportunity to intern at legal aid. My commitment to working with people with limited resources grew from there.
The public defender job in Durham was a great opportunity for me to do this work. I was in civil practice before then, but the type of practice wasn’t fulfilling for me. The public defender’s office is where I first began representing parents, which took advantage of some of the skills I had developed in civil practice. I did that work throughout the time I was with the public defender’s office because of the relationships I developed with the clients. Representing parents who could face termination of their parental rights is an area of indigent defense where continuity of legal representation is very important.
Why did you decide to join IDS?
My work at the public defender’s office, School of Government, and then AOC made this a good next step. I’ve gone from representing clients, to providing training to attorneys who represent clients, to working with the agency that supports the entire court system. This is a great opportunity to put my experiences to work to help provide quality representation for poor people in North Carolina. I hope the relationships I’ve developed will help me do an effective job at IDS.
What have been the biggest challenges in the job so far?
A couple of things. First, I’m replacing Danielle Carman, the previous assistant director and general counsel. She was the only person who held that position until now. It’s difficult to come after the person who created so much at IDS, and it’s particularly difficult to come after someone with so much energy and commitment for the work. People’s expectations are high because she did such a great job.
Another thing is that IDS is a small agency. Only a tiny part of our budget goes to administration. The rest goes to pay the attorneys in the trenches who do this work. We all have a lot to do, and I have a lot to learn and pull together to balance my responsibilities as assistant director and general counsel. For example, as assistant director, I’m responsible for providing information to our oversight commission, which meets quarterly. Part of that includes identifying legal issues for the Commission and developing policy recommendations for them; and, when the Commission develops a policy, helping the agency implement it. In the meantime, I’ll receive a phone call or email from any one of our thirty plus judicial districts on any number of issues, including whether a person is entitled to counsel in the first place or whether an attorney can bill for this action or that. It’s really diverse. We’re also gearing up for the 2017 legislative long session while implementing initiatives from previous sessions, such as new reporting requirements and compensation methods.
What have you enjoyed the most so far?
I’m inspired by the people I get to work with every day. I work with assistant public defenders, private attorneys, contract attorneys, investigators—the whole range of people dedicated to providing indigent defense. I am impressed by their commitment and creativity in what can be challenging circumstances.
The work environment at IDS is another thing I really enjoy. As I said, we all have a lot to do, but it’s really an egalitarian environment. Everyone pitches in. It’s a team effort.
I also like riding my bike to work.
How can people reach you in your new role?
I am available to assist indigent defenders and others in the court system regarding indigent defense. People can reach me at IDS at 919.354.7200 or firstname.lastname@example.org. That’s the email address I had at AOC. But, because of the way email technology works, you may get an error message if your last email to me was when I was at AOC. Even though I have the same email address, I have a different mailbox. You need to clear your cache or type in my email address from scratch. Don’t let it autofill. If you get an email reply from me, you’re good to go.