Lady Lawyer: Vernida R. Chaney

By Patrica Donkor

Welcome back everyone and thanks for tuning in to another installment of the Lady Lawyer!

Last month, we spoke to a Lady Lawyer that has enjoyed a successful career on the prosecutorial side of the criminal arena. This month, I wanted to stay on the criminal side of things with a Lady Lawyer working in criminal defense.  With her, I will explore the unique challenges she faces and the self-care/preservation decisions that have helped her stay the test of time.

Meet Vernida R. Chaney. She is the owner of the Chaney Law Firm, PLLC, a booming criminal practice that takes her into state and federal courts across several jurisdictions in Northern Virginia. Prior to launching her firm three years ago, she was a Senior Assistant Public Defender at the Fairfax County Public Defender’s Office in Fairfax, Virginia (“PD’s office”) for eight years. She briefly left after six and a half years to join the Northern Virginia Capital Defender’s Office where she handled death penalty cases before returning to the Fairfax PD’s office for a year and a half as a Senior Assistant Public Defender. Vernida is a zealous advocate well known for both her litigation and negotiation skills.

PD: Hi Vernida! Thanks for meeting with me.  First off, tell me where you grew up?

VC: I was raised in Richmond, Virginia.

PD: Tell me about your education.

VC: I earned a B.A. in Sociology and African American Studies from the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. Upon returning to Richmond after graduation, I enrolled in business school at Virginia Commonwealth University, where I received my M.B.A., then pursued law at Howard. After receiving my J.D., I began working at the Fairfax PD’s office.

PD: So, you have your own practice now, but how did you end up at the PD’s office?

VC: Well, I have always known that I would eventually venture out on my own. In fact, I was quoted in the Richmond Times-Dispatch right after graduating Howard Law, saying “I am going to work at a public defender’s office and then I plan to open my own firm.”

My dad had his own business and my mom worked in corporate America and I grew up in their offices and around their businesses so I have always had a business mindset and entrepreneurial spirit. In my teens and early twenties, I headed a few marketing and event planning entrepreneurial ventures which fueled my interest in pursuing an M.B.A. Afterwards, I went to law school, not to practice, but instead to get into business with a legal background. So, it was never really in the cards for me to practice, litigate, or venture into criminal law. However, Howard Law is known for producing “social engineers.” As stated by Charles Hamilton Houston, “A lawyer’s either a social engineer or … a parasite on society.“ While at Howard Law, I was encouraged to use my passion for helping others by applying the law rather than just understanding it. My education and practical experience was heavily criminally-focused for the latter part of my time at Howard Law that the natural progression was for me to work at the PD’s office. For instance, I interned with the PD’s office, the U.S. Attorney’s Office in D.C., and with D.C. Law Students in Court.  I was also the research assistant for my evidence professor, Adam Kurland, who is a former federal prosecutor and chair of the American Bar Association’s (ABA) white collar crimes division. So, with these experiences, it made sense for me to continue my work as a public defender where I could have a direct and positive impact on so many people. I expected for it to be only temporary but ended up staying much longer than I anticipated.

PD: How did you end up staying so long?

VC: I think because I just loved it. I really felt like I was making a difference. I also felt committed because of the lack of minority representation in the criminal justice system, in the judiciary, in the Fairfax Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office, and even in the the PD’s office. In a way, I felt obligated to be there. As a minority attorney, there is a level of unique insight that we bring and can offer. When it was not present on either side of the justice system nor the bench, I felt I was there to fill that gap. I felt I could relate to clients better, most of whom were also minorities, and I thought I was able to better understand the circumstances that lead them to the point in their life where they needed legal representation than my non-minority colleagues. My clients would tell me they were able to communicate with me more openly and they were more trusting that I had their best interest in mind. I was also able to educate my colleagues about certain social and cultural nuances that they could easily overlook if they were not familiar with minority communities. It then became somewhat of a mission for me to use my identity as a Black woman to diversify the criminal justice system. Simply, my being there was a revolutionary act and so I felt that it necessary for me to stay and continue to not only fight for justice for my clients, but also fight for greater diversity and inclusion in the legal process. So overall, it was a mix of love and passion for the job and a duty to be, and further, the minority presence.

PD: As you know, I am a former public defender and during my time, I dealt with a multitude of biases – sometimes they related to my age, my gender, or my race. During your time as a Fairfax County public defender, did you experience internal biases and if so, how did you handle them?

VC: Yes, I did. Most of the clients were minorities – African-American and Hispanic. There were times I had non-minority clients who felt that they should be represented by a non-minority attorney because their perception was that they would get better representation from an attorney who looked like them. So, for those clients, I believe my race and maybe also in part, my youth, interfered with my ability to do my job.

PD: Sounds familiar. How did you handle it without taking it too personally?

VC: I just didn’t let it bother me, mostly because I could understand their sentiment. My strategy with these type of clients was to focus on talking to and relating to them on a personal level. Eventually, they would let their guard down and everything would be fine. I did, however, have a few clients, some of whom had mental disorders and were deemed incompetent to stand trial, who would say “I am not trying to be represented by that n—- attorney.” In those situations, there was nothing that I could do other than continue to work with them to the extent they would allow me to and, if they objected, I would have to withdraw from their case due to the breakdown in the attorney-client relationship.

PD: How would the office handle the case when you would withdraw?

VC: The court would appoint another attorney, outside of my office.

PD: I recall one time, as a youngpublic defender, I was assigned the case of a middle-aged Caucasian woman. She and I met. I recall that I spent a considerable amount of time with her because this was her first run-in with the criminal justice system and she was terrified. The meeting ended well, I thought. However, in a few days, I learned that she had hired a white female attorney, whom I knew from law school. I knew the attorney had literally just started her criminal practice and had very little experience. I knew that I could give the client better representation. I later learned that the law school colleague told a mutual friend that the client said that she did not feel comfortable with me. I knew that her discomfort could only be because of my race, particularly based on who she chose to hire instead. That experience stuck with me. Have you encountered anything similar?

VC: I recall a former client, a young white teenager, probably about 18, but still in high school. She got into trouble and did not want to tell her parents about it. Since she was full-time student and did not have income, she qualified for a public defender. I don’t recall what she was charged with specifically, but it was a felony. I wanted her to tell her parents, because like my parents, I was confident that they would do anything to help her since she was an overall good kid who was college-bound. I eventually convinced her to tell her parents. Her parents came in, we spoke, they informed me that they were thinking about hiring an attorney but were happy to have me to continue representing her. For our first hearing, we ended up with a less-than-compassionate prosecutor who was willing to reduce the charge but not dismiss it outright and this kid needed a full dismissal.  At my suggestion, her parents hired an attorney for the next hearing. Her parents were very nice and grateful that I was pushing for a dismissal and not trying to get her to take a plea deal. Her parents said to me “I don’t want you to think that we do not want a minority attorney.” I felt that if this young lady had walked into court with a good, well-respected private attorney, she may have received an outright dismissal. I felt that what was keeping her from getting a dismissal was not me personally or my race, but instead, what I represented – the PD’s office.

PD: Wow. That would bother me, particularly because I know that our local PD offices – Alexandria, Fairfax, and D.C. in particular, and so many others – really train their attorneys up. Some of the smartest and brightest lawyers are in those offices, not because they don’t have options; quite the contrary. They are highly recruited for various positions, but instead choose those jobs because they believe in the work. How did that make you feel to tell her to retain a private attorney? How did you cope with that?

VC: I would never want a genuinely indigent client to feel compelled to hire an attorney; however, in that case, her parents were more than financially able to retain an attorney, so it was the right move.  At her next court date, her case was dismissed. Although, I was no longer the attorney of record, I continued to follow the case and was happy that this young lady was able to go to college without a criminal conviction. It was an excellent result.

PD: But I’m sure the prosecutor knew about the quality of your office’s work, seeing as though you all went up against one another every day, no?

VC: True, but sometimes there is an inherent bias associated with poor or indigent clients that may not be attributed to clients who are able to retain counsel. I know this from my own personal experience since leaving the PD’s office and now being a private attorney. I am no different an attorney that I was back then. I have the same type of clients now that I had when I was at the PD’s office but, whereas then, sometimes I would have to fight tooth and nail to get a justified or reasonable result. Now, as a private attorney, most often there is less of a fight.

PD: That’s interesting since you literally are the same person and the prosecutor can see that. Do you believe you present differently as a PD versus as a private attorney?

VC: I will say this, the optics and impressions that you give off matter. As a private attorney, I can’t afford to go to court and not present my best, particularly when I go to a new jurisdiction or before a new prosecutor or judge. I do believe that the appearance and optics that I try to present, now that I am private practice, reflects the seriousness of my work.

PD: What do the appearance and optics look like?

VC: “You need to look like a lawyer.” Plain and simple. I have this discussion with female attorneys all the time. Even when I was with the PD’s office, in preparing for a jury trial, I would go back and forth with myself: “Do I wear my hair curly? Do I wear my hair straight?” I literally had debates about how I was going to wear my hair during jury trials. I finally got to a point, near the end of my career at the PD’s office when I was comfortable wearing my hair curly during the work week.

PD: Has this internal debate changed now that you are out on your own?

VC: I just finished a trial in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, Alexandria, Virginia. The trial lasted a month. I wore my hair pulled back in a bun every day until the last day of closing arguments. The trial was supposed to wrap up on a Friday, but extended into a final Monday, for the last day of closing arguments. That Monday, I woke up thinking “What should I do? Should I pull my hair back into a bun again? Eventually, I decided “forget it” and wore my curly hair down.  When I came to court everyone was commenting about how I looked so different. An attorney, representing a co-defendant, suggested that I make a joke about it to the jury, so I did. In my closing, I said “Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I promise you that I am the same attorney that you have seen for the last month. I know that I look different, but I am Vernida Chaney, Mr. ——’s attorney” and everyone started laughing.

PD: It sounds like you have had to and continue to make decisions about your appearance, as a form of self-preservation. Would you agree?

VC: Yes, but that’s a belief I hold true anyway. When I was at the PD’s office, I had colleagues that wore cute dresses or ballet flats with bows and I loved it. Even though I wanted to dress similarly, I always felt the need to give off the appearance that I was a lawyer.  In the past, people have mistaken me for the court reporter, one of the deputies, or someone that worked in the courthouse. So I always tried to make sure that I didn’t look like anything else other than an attorney.

PD: So this was a consideration that you had as a public defender, and more so now?

VC: Yes, much more so now. For one, I do have clients that are paying to have an attorney, not a secretary or an assistant, represent them. Two, I think when you find yourself in new environments or dealing with new people it is very important that you give off the impression that you are a serious litigator and that you are not there to play games.

PD: Does not being able to appear the way you feel most comfortable have an impact on you?

VC: Like everyone else, it is more comfortable to wear casual clothes versus a suit and heels all day but, for me, it is important to do so. This allows me to feel more confident when I am in court representing my clients.

PD: You spent time as a Capital Defender, representing people who were sentenced to die. Describe what that was like for you. As a litigator, you are often told to keep the emotion out of representation, so to not hinder your ability to be effective. What is your perspective on this? What worked for you?

VC: I don’t think you can take your emotions out of it. That wouldn’t be human. These clients are facing the ultimate punishment – death – and it is important to feel their pain, fears, and troubles. Being emotionally connected to my clients makes me a better attorney.

PD: Did you experience a client execution as a capital defender? Did it ever cross your mind after that experience, that the work was too much to bear?

VC: Fortunately, no. All the cases I worked on the clients were spared the death penalty.

PD: Do you continue to work on capital cases? Clearly everyone is not cut out for the work. What do you think it is about you?

VC: Indeed, these are difficult cases to work on; however, I believe in redemption and that every life is valuable. My Christian faith is my biggest source of strength and guidance in doing this work.

PD: People don’t realize that a huge part of being a criminal defense attorney involves being a counselor. You have mounted defenses against the most serious crimes possible and, with the capital cases, represented clients facing the heftiest sentences. Sometimes a win in a case is getting a client a life sentence instead of the death penalty. Over the years, did you develop an approach to counseling clients, when the victory may come in the form of the lesser of two extremely tough alternatives?

VC: You are exactly right. I am a counselor to my clients but in order for them to listen to me, they have to trust me. In my opinion, the only way to build that trust is to develop a genuine relationship with them and their family.

PD: What about yourself? Do you find that you also need to give yourself pep talks to plow ahead during those times?

VC: Certainly. The work we do is hard; however, I recognize many of my clients have it much harder. When I think about what they are going through, it motivates me to keep going.

PD: Thanks, Vernida!

VC: Thank you, Patricia

Next month, we will continue our feature of Ms. Chaney in ‘Vernida 2.0.’ We will talk to her about when she knew it was time to leave the job she loved at the Fairfax PD’s office and enter the unfamiliar – solo private practice. We will discuss decisions she made along the way and how they factored into her overall self-care.

If you want to learn more about Vernida, visit her on Linkedin at https://www.linkedin.com/in/vernida-r-chaney-b9899045.