Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Flogging the horse, maybe... but you did ask!

A reader posted a question on a topic I've been discussing lately, the differences, similarities, and tensions between civil and criminal law. The three entries on this subject are Don't Bother Bribing Me, An Odd case of Snobbery, and More on Civil v. Criminal. Here's the (edited) question:

Why could (hypothetically) any disdain [] come from criminal lawyers towards civil lawyers?

Since this is (a) my blog and (b) all hypothetical I'm going to rephrase the question this way:

"If a law student was deciding whether to practice civil or criminal law, how would someone argue that he should choose criminal law?" Merely because it makes the question easier to answer.

1. It's more interesting. I don't think anyone can argue that, overall and in general, criminal law is more interesting. I say that because when I gather with my civil law friends (if I have any left afetr this topic!) I'm the one with the stories. Likewise, look at your TV guide and find a single show about the practice of criminal law, either a documentary or fiction. Perusing contracts and boxes of documents in an attempt to get the most money possible for your client simply isn't interesting. To me. And most other people.

2. The cases don't drag on. Civil cases not only last years, but you have to do years of work on them. While criminal cases can last a year, most don't and they don't require hundreds of hours of grunt work. As a result, a lawyer can handle more cases, not have all his income eggs in one basket, and get more variety.

3. Courtroom time. Civil lawyers simply don't got to court very often. As a civil litigator, I tried one case in five years, and that was a pro bono case. Likewise, hearings were few and far between, one every six months maybe.

4. Societal benefit and personal satisfaction. In a previous post I talked about the partner who told me that working for his mega firm was the only real practice of law, and anyone who didn't want to, or couldn't handle it, could "Go peck sh*t with the chickens." His point was that there was nothing more important in the legal world than not just civil law, but the kind of civil law he handled.
I beg to differ. Here's a question: how much money would you take to spend 10 years in the penitentiary, down in Huntsville? Ten years away from your spouse, your kids, not earning a living. A felony on your record and heaven-knows-who in the bunk above you. How much?
Didn't think so. Me neither.
Related question: which of these scenarios would make you feel like you were contributing:
  • helping a sexual assault victim see her rapist brought to justice, or
  • seeing the mother of a young murder victim watch his killer be found guilty by a jury, or
  • getting a not-guilty verdict for a client you truly believe is innocent, or
  • shaking the hand of your client's corporate representative after you've negotiated a favorable settlement to the case they'd brought against a competitor?
All four, to be truthful. But I wouldn't rank them all equally in terms of whether I felt I'd done the world a favor, and whether I was personally satisfied with what I was doing with my time.

5. Schedule. I have found myself working fewer hours in criminal law than in civil. Simple as that.

6. Colleagues. I loved all. . . okay most. . . of my fellow associates and I'm still friends with a lot of them. I was less enamored with the relationships between lawyers working different sides of a case. There was so much more hostility and considerably less honesty. I suspect there are a couple of reasons why, in my experience, the relationship between prosecutors and defense lawyers is better than that between plaintiff and civil defense lawyers.
The main one is that I see the same criminal defense lawyers day in and day out. If one of us cheats or lies, the small community in which we work will hear about it. In civil law, if you're dealing with a lawyer from another state, those same community-like rules don't seem to apply.
Relatedly, we work face-to-face. So much of civil law is done over the phone or by letter, email, and fax. People, lawyers included, simply don't have to be as civil when operating through those media.
Additionally, law firms are businesses and, at the end of the day, they exist to make money. That being their focus, and with one exception out of dozens of partners I worked with, I simply never found anyone I wanted to emulate, to be like. In other words, I'm more into practicing law than making money, but as a civil lawyer you are simply obliged to worry about the almighty buck. You have to hustle for clients, bill the heck out of them, and make them grateful you're billing the heck out of them. Any business where you have to account for your time, in six minute increments, simply doesn't suit me.

That's about all I can think of. . . any questions? Thoughts? If not, I think this will be my last post on the subject just because I don't want to appear as though I'm dissing civil lawyers or firms. They perform an essential business function, no doubt at all, and my hat is off to all those who make a successful, and enjoyable career, in the civil world.


  1. Criminal case you might enjoy:

  2. I'm a 3L about to graduate in May. Thanks for this list! I was in an employment law clinic as a 2L, and then this past year worked as a clerk with felony prosecutors. I've decided to practice criminal law for some of the same reasons you've listed. It is very nice to hear your thoughts as someone who has practiced in civil and criminal law.


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