Wednesday, November 25, 2009

What makes a good defense lawyer?

Following up on last week's post, What makes a good prosecutor?, here's my take on what makes a good defense lawyer. These are in no particular order, I have written them as they occur to me. And not being one, chances are I will miss something so feel free to comment on where I've gone wrong.

1. Never tell a prosecutor he's missed something or is wrong (just kidding, see above).

2. Maintain credibility and reputation. A huge part of a defense lawyer's job is talking to and negotiating with ADAs and the judge. As anyone knows, a reputation takes time to build but can be destroyed in a moment and without a good reputation, without credibility, any representation a defense lawyer makes to an ADA or a judge is worth much less. The best defense lawyers will not misrepresent the facts or try to pull the wool over our eyes. They know that any benefit gained in the immediate present, for that particular client, will be undone by many months of distrust. The flip side is that when a lawyer I trust tells me something, I believe him or her. If Kent Anschutz or Jamie Spencer tell me that their client was the passenger not the driver, I know that are probably right and that when I look at the police tape I should look for precisely that. It makes my work easier and is better for all their clients, now and down the line.

3. Know the facts. It's frustrating to have a defense lawyer approach me in court about his case when I have probably thirty to juggle that day, and ask me about about a minute detail buried in the offense report. I will take the time to read the report when I need to, of course, but if you are one of the many lawyers I trust, and you can tell me the facts, it works so much more smoothly and quickly.

4. Know the law. Just this week, a defense lawyer incorrectly advised his client about the minimum sentence he was facing. The judge caught the mistake and carefully, delicately, made it all right before any harm was done. But prosecutors, defense lawyers, and their clients need to be on the same page, we need to know what the facts are and how the law applies. If a client thinks he's facing 25 years minimum when really it's 5 years, justice isn't getting done.

5. Client control. This is where good defense lawyers really garner my respect. You see, in my experience they often face an almost impossible task of explaining the law to their clients, and explaining the legal position that person is in. One reason it can be so hard is that their clients already think they know they law. A good example is someone being held in the county jail pending trial, or a plea deal, who talks to his fellow inmates, the jailhouse lawyers who tell him with great authority which statute applies and what remedies he is entitled to. If you add to that a lawyer, paid for by the state, who comes in and tells the inmate something he doesn't want to hear: "No, you don't get a dismissal because the cop lost the video." Or, "No, you don't get let out today because the gun you used was fake." Every day, defense lawyers endure mistrust, skepticism, and in many cases outright verbal abuse. So to command respect from and the attention of their clients, and to earn the trust of their clients, is a great skill and one that is not easily mastered.

6. Patience. Time and again, I see the good defense lawyers waiting--for the judge, for a prosecutor, for their clients. Those that don't let their frustration bubble over remain in the best frame of mind to get the job done. And believe me, prosecutors see who is politely and patiently waiting their turn, and we appreciate it.

7. Presentations skills. This is obvious, perhaps, and is the same for defense lawyers and prosecutors. If you have a coherent message and can get it across to a judge or a jury, then you will be a more effective lawyer.

8. Maintain perspective. Most lawyers know when their clients are guilty of the crime charged, and will work hard to represent them in order to get the best deal possible. There are some, however, who will believe every word their client (and his or her family) says, regardless of the videotaped evidence, the confession, and the litany of witnesses who say otherwise. I suppose it relates to maintaining credibility, but if you refuse to accept a cold hard fact, and instead tell an ADA or the judge (or heaven forbid a jury) the complete opposite based only on the say-so of your client, then you are not being effective. A healthy mistrust of the State is, undoubtedly, healthy for a defense lawyer, but blind acceptance or willful ignorance of the facts is unhealthy for a positive resolution of the case.

Let me close by saying that my respect for criminal defense lawyers grows by the day. They have an incredibly hard job and the vast majority do it with good humor, diligence, and a real desire to do the best thing for their clients. They work hard for very little pay in many instances, and face all the perils of the self-employed worker. Bless 'em all, I say.

Okay, as to my list, what did I miss?

19 comments:

  1. Well, I do believe that there are a few things missing from the list, but first I think we need to acknowledge that there is a distinction between “good” in the sense of “effectiveness versus incompetence from the perspective of self-interest of the client” and “good” in a moral sense of “benevolence versus malevolence in the context of fairness, justice, and welfare of society as a whole”. Is a defense lawyer “good” if he or she routinely wins cases that let serial killers, rapists, drunk drivers, child abusers, etc., back out on the streets, or gets big megacorporations, cheaters, and con artists off the hook after swindling poor widows and orphans out of life savings, and so forth?

    Anyway, one item that I thought was missing is having exemplary instincts for questioning prospective jurors, knowing how to strategically use peremptory strikes, and so forth. Another item not mentioned is having an intellectual curiosity that drives a passion for always learning more through self study or taking advantage of formal continuing education opportunities. Of course those things would apply to attorneys on the prosecution side as well, but I think they are larger factors for defense attorneys.

    I also think that, just as in the medical profession, being a specialist and limiting clientele to those whose cases involve the specialty would be helpful in being a better and more effective defense lawyer – for example a specialty in arson, rape, fraud, traffic violations, murder, assault, larceny, etc. Yes, most cases involve more than a single element but usually isn’t one thing more or less dominant?

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  2. Something I've always wondered is how a defense attorney presents a defense when they can't stand the defendant. I know as a professional you have to put your personal feelings aside and do your job to the best of your ability, but how can you do this when your client is a repulsive maggot and you can hardly stand to be around them due to their reprehensible crime?

    That, and how the hell did Perry Mason always find a way to get the guilty person into the courtroom so they could confess?

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  3. I hadn't thought about the idea of specialization for criminal defense lawyers, but you may be right. DWI law, for example, can get a little complicated and someone who devotes their practice to this will, likely, be a better advocate than a generalist (other things being basically equal).

    I don't know whether intellectual curiosity or voir dire abilities are a larger factor for defense attorneys, as you suggest. I'll think about it and take more suggestions.

    And Jeff, thanks for posting. I'd love for a defense attorney to chip in and answer your question. I think maybe, though, you have answered it yourself. I would guess the only way would be to concentrate on a higher purpose - that of holding the state to its burden, examining the evidence and testimony on a more intellectual level. I know that some lawyers are better at hiding their disdain than others, but difficult (as opposed to reprehensible) clients seem quite common, so let's hear from a defense attorney or two...!

    As for Perry Mason... I don't know, but the moment I see him sit at defense counsel, I'm dismissing my case before he makes a fool of me in front of the jury. Or, worse, I find myself confessing to the crime!

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  4. Perhaps the only thing more self-aggrandizing that posting a picture of oneself with an internationally famous attorney would be sending oneself “best regards” for taking said picture.law directory

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  5. Deal only with certified and licensed lawyers to operate in your state.You can always do a little research online for a list of reliable legal help.

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  6. I appreciate the whole list! Perhaps you could add "humility"? prisongrievances.blogspot.com

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  7. Terri, you're right, that's definitely important.

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  8. I'm a 3rd year undergrad at GSU and want to become a defense attorney. I'm 30 years old and am a recovering alcoholic that comes from a very strong political family with means. I plan to enter law school at GSU or John Marshall if things go south. The reason I want to get involved in criminal defense is I want to help people who make a mistake to get back out of the criminal justice system as well as help addicts get the help they need rather than wind up in prison. Please give me your thoughts and any advice for law school would be greatly appreciated.

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  9. Chandler, that's a noble reason to go to law school and I wish you luck. My biggest advice for law school these days is to tell people not to get into too much debt. Sounds like that may not be an issue for you, but it bears repeating.
    Otherwise, just treat law school like a full-time job and you'll be fine. Being older, you'll have more experience and that'll be an advantage, too. Enjoy it, and best of luck!

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  10. I really appreciate your work. It hard to find the Best Lawyers .A huge part of a defense lawyer's job is talking to and negotiating with ADAs and the judge. They have an incredibly hard job and the vast majority do it with good humor, diligence, and a real desire to do the best thing for their clients.

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  11. I agree with you that maintain credibility and a good reputation is a huge part in being a defense lawyer. When choosing a lawyer, I want one that I know has my best interests in mind, and knows not to misinterpret or exaggerate facts. A lawyer with credibility can do wonders for their clients, as their word means a lot more.

    Lawyers

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  12. With dogged determination, the defense attorney must exploit every avenue that is available to him to defend his client. He must pursue every opportunity to sway the judge and jury if his case goes to court, and, if his client is found guilty, he must exhaust all possible appeals.

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  13. Thanks for the information on what constitutes a good criminal defense lawyer. I agree that they need to be trustworthy! Reputation is everything in the court of law.
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  18. These are some good tips for finding a good criminal defense lawyer. I definitely agree that a lawyer should be very knowledgeable of the law. When hiring a lawyer, make sure that they know what they are talking about! https://rockettlawokc.com/attorney-profile/

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  19. I understand that it would take a specific skill set to be capable of handling the responsibilities of a criminal defense attorney. It is interesting to learn that these attorneys should maintain good credibility and reputation. I think that another thing that would be beneficial in this career would be to have a continued desire to learn and progress in new materials and advancements. http://davidsonlawcenter.com/criminal-law.html

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