Bronx Defenders and the Feng Shui of Public Defense

While some public defender offices have bullet proof glass separating clients from the staff, the Bronx Defenders has created a more welcoming approach, with an aesthetic resembling a community center. Both designs send a message.

The lobby of the Bronx Defenders.

It’s not often lawyers at a public defender’s office are excited to show you around their building. And that’s usually for good reason – you’ve seen one defender office, you’ve seen them all. A lobby with a bullet proof glass window clients approach to speak to a receptionist, and some cubicles and offices in the back with lawyers and staff.

But at the Bronx Defender’s Office, they want to show you around because they have a new imagination of space design for public defense. Walking through their buildings is like watching a lawyer’s version of MTV cribs. Not that it is blinged out, but that the design – the furniture, the room set-ups, the lack of walls where one is used to seeing them, even the paintings hung of client’s art – sends a message to both clients and attorneys.

Work stations facilitate more collaborative representation for clients.

They have feng shui’s public defense, and in doing so have a set an atmosphere that reflects and facilitates a different sort of relationship between client and attorney. Their space speaks as much to partnership, teamwork, and respect for a client, as bullet proof glass windows in conventional offices insinuate fear and distrust.

Waiting in the lobby filled with colorful couches, play areas for children, and a free-flowing connection to the office spaces with meeting rooms – you feel like you are more in a community center than a law office. Their office areas are set up more like bee hives for attorneys as to better be able to work collaboratively in their teams. If the criminal defense attorney wants to check in about immigration consequences of a charge, they can stand up, or turn their head, and get some response from the immigration advocate sitting near by.

The building has a mock court for lawyers and clients to prepare for hearing.

And that concept of proximity extends to the very location of the Bronx Defender’s Building – it is the neighborhood which makes them part of the fabric of the community in the most real of ways, and leads to new possibilities of work that can extend beyond the courtroom.

They say first impressions are important. For people stepping into the public defender’s office for the first time, the building is the first impression of the institution that they must lean on during some of the most difficult times of their lives. And in that way, even the most subtle of messages, like space aesthetic, speak volumes about what support they can expect as they take on a profoundly important, life defining moment, to fight for their liberty.

About Raj Jayadev

Raj Jayadev is the coordinator of SV De-Bug and coordinates the Albert Cobarrubias Justice Project, an organizing model for families and communities to impact their local court systems. He is an Ashoka Fellow.

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