At 8:00pm on a Tuesday night, Diane Letarte is just leaving her San Diego office and still has more than 200 miles to drive. Although pulling long hours is nothing new for attorneys in any practice area, Letarte has no option but to drive to her clients. As Lifers in California State Prisons, Diane’s clients were all incarcerated after having been convicted of 1st and 2nd degree murder, kidnap/robbery or kidnap/ransom. Not surprisingly, Letarte is one of only a few dozen attorneys in the state to work in the niche practice of post-conviction.
Standing Up For Lifers
Letarte’s decision to work in the field of post-conviction may appear brazen. However, Letarte is a bit unconventional by nature. Born and raised in Montreal, Quebec, Letarte is a licensed pilot, rides a motorcycle, skydives and bungee jumps for fun, so she’s admittedly a bit of an adrenaline junkie. But it wasn’t until 1996 that Diane entered the legal field. “I worked full time as a Software Engineer, and traveled the world for System Support,” Letarte says of her first career. An awful experience with an attorney prompted her to go to law school at night.
“I was ripped off by an attorney when my father died and I hated attorneys. I felt helpless. I promised myself I would get the education and never make anyone else feel the way that I felt,” she says. After 20 years with her software company, company wide lay-offs presented Diane with the opportunity to receive severance pay, and simultaneously open her solo practice, as an “on the street, criminal attorney, doing misdemeanors, felonies, and trials,” she recalls.
But a chance meeting with a fellow attorney five years into her practice introduced Letarte to post-conviction work. “At first, I enjoyed the traveling and setting my own hours. Then I began to enjoy meeting the individuals that most of the free community never gets a chance to speak to, or would want to give the time of day. I read something a long time ago that really stuck with me. ‘You can easily judge the character of a person by how she treats those who can do nothing for them.’ This area of the law is very character building!” she laughs.
Growing serious she says, “This area of the law carries the life of another human being in your hands. Post-conviction is a very niche area of the law, and since Marsy’s Law became effective, on-the-street criminal attorneys should not go in and wing the Parole Suitability Hearing. This can be devastating because if the client or attorney is not properly prepared, the inmate can receive a 15 year denial before getting another chance at a Parole Review.”
“For example, if an inmate took a plea for 2nd degree murder of 15 to life, the last thing the inmate-client needs is to get denied for another 15 years. That basically turns his 2nd degree murder plea into a double sentence, which is worse than a 1st degree murder sentence.” As a result, many of Letarte’s clients come to her by way of referral from criminal attorneys who send their previous clients to her. The remainder of her clients are word of mouth referrals from inside the prisons. “Prisons are a very closed community. Inmates talk about good attorneys and bad attorneys,” she explains.
Although today, Letarte doesn’t bat an eye at heading into a men’s prison, she did shadow colleagues as a new attorney and she highly recommends anyone considering this field to do the same. “There is no class, and there are barely any books written about this area of the law. It is on the job training. As a woman attorney, there is no book that tells you how to dress, or talk, or what to carry or not carry when going into a High Security Level IV Men’s State Prison, such as Pelican Bay State Prison, designated to house California’s most serious criminal offenders. The best advice I can give a new attorney who wants to do lifer parole suitability hearings is to shadow another attorney doing lifer cases,” she says.
Even for a thrill seeker like Diane, she concedes that her early work in the field was intimidating. But over time she’s become increasingly comfortable with the work, and often refuses the prison’s offerings of protection. “I treat everyone the same and actually enjoy having conversations with my clients and getting to know them personally. This is crucial in representing my clients. I sit in the prison with my client like I would be sitting in my family room.”
To illustrate, Letarte recalls being offering a bullet proof vest to wear while talking with a client. She says, “I refused to wear it. If I could not trust my client how could he ever open up to me and share his story so that I could successfully represent him?” Likewise, Letarte has refused spit masks, and does not allow her clients to be handcuffed while she is meeting with them. “I am always aware of my environment, but I do not want to have my clients feeling that I am there for the retainer, and a quick 15 minute interview.”
Diane is equally as candid with fellow attorneys as she is with her clients. As such, she admits that it takes a certain type of person to do the work that she does. “You need to have stamina,” she says. “There are long hours, lots of traveling, and lots of time spent alone away from home and stuck in hotels. You also need to be self-sufficient, because there are so few lawyers in the field; it’s not always easy to bounce ideas off of others. You must also be alert to your surroundings.” Finally she adds, “You must know what you’re doing, and be able to manage realistic expectations.”
Yet even with those occupational hazards, Letarte truly enjoys her job. “I know it sounds like an oxymoron, but I’m a caring attorney. It drives me to do the right thing. But if you’re in this for the money, you’re in the wrong field.”
As far as money goes, Letarte has made her fee structure remarkably simple. On her website, Diane has flat legal fees clearly posted. “I refuse to bill by the hour whenever possible. I can be more efficient [with a flat fee] which the clients love. This is a new business model and it is a much more humane way to work, and more affordable to my clients. They know up front what services they are getting for their money.”
A Swiftly Growing Practice, in a Slowly Growing Field
When Letarte entered her niche field, she recalled a group of roughly a dozen known attorneys who were exclusively post-conviction lifer attorneys. Today she estimates there are closer to 30 known attorneys in her field, as well as newer, unknown attorneys, so there still aren’t many attorneys choosing this “in the prison” practice. However, this has served to her benefit and the benefit of her clients in multiple ways. She has earned another Masters Degrees, in Forensic psychology, and an LL.M. in Criminal Law, since opening her practice. She has also racked up more than 1,000 parole hearings and parole revocation hearings, making her one of the ‘old-timers’ in the field. As a result, the Law Office of Diane T. Letarte serves all 34 State Prisons throughout California for lifer parole hearings. Her skills have also been recognized by organizations such as the Central California Appellate Program (CCAP), who have called on Diane to teach classes to their appellate attorneys on the lifer parole hearing process.
As an added surprise, over the last year, Letarte has seen her firm grow faster than she had anticipated, thereby allowing her to add support staff. Yolanda Navarro “shares the same compassion for the less fortunate,” Letarte says proudly. Navarro was the Pro Per Administrator from Private Conflict Counsel (PCC), who met clients at the local San Diego County Jail. “Her previous job was the most challenging she ever had but at the end of the day, she felt that she made a difference in someone’s life and that’s all that mattered,” Letarte adds. “She has made a world of difference to me in helping handle clients while I’m traveling.”
And of course, just as those who came before did for her, Letarte is passing on her expertise to an up and coming attorney interested in the field. For the past two and a half years Serena Salinas has been mentored by Letarte; previously worked with the Civil Rights Clinic at UC Davis School of Law, where she worked on Gilman et al v. Schwarzenegger (Marsy’s Law) among others. “Serena’s experiences and passion for post-conviction work reflects her great potential,” Letarte says. “I am honored to be able to offer her on the job training…beginning with lots of visits to prisons.”
• 2011 M.S. Forensic Psych., Walden University, MN
• 2003 LL.M. Criminal, University of San Diego Law, CA
• 1996 J.D. Thomas Jefferson, School of Law, SD, CA (Cambridge University, Cambridge England)
• 1991 M.B.A. University of Redlands, Redlands, CA
• 1979 B.S. Computer Science, Florida Atlantic Univ., FL
• 1976 A.A. Associate of Arts, Palm Bch Jr. College, FL
• Judge Pro-Tem volunteer at Kearny Mesa Superior Court
• Over 1500 Parole Revocation and Lifer Hearings
• Vista Public Defender for LLM Criminal Internship – trials
• Mediator since 2000 for NC LIFELINE’s Dispute Resolution
• Arbitrator since 1996 – California Housing Finance Agency
• San Diego Superior Court – Mediator Certified
• Solo Practitioner since 1997
• Criminal, Personal Injury, Bankruptcy and Employment Law
» PROFESSIONAL MEMBERSHIPS
• Former President of NC Chapter of [women] Lawyers Club
• Member of San Diego and the North County Bar(s)
• Member of Florida and the Wash. D.C. Bar(s)
• Award winner from San Diego Volunteer Lawyer Program (SDVLP)
• Award Appreciation for outstanding dedication and service – North County Bar Association
• Former President of Condo HOA and Single Family Home HOA.
Filed Under: Featured Stories
About the Author: Karen Gorden is a Staff Writer for Attorney Journal.