Friday, June 10, 2011

Interview with a Criminal Defense Lawyer

A while back I did interviews with various folks involved with criminal justice, including Judge Mike Lynch and crime scene specialist Stacey Wells, but I never got around to serving up the words of the men in black hats, the people who strive to put crooks back on the streets (I'm kidding, I'm kidding).

So, here's a friend and colleague Bob Smith, who has been a criminal defense lawyer for. . . well, let's let him tell us, eh?

Say, Bob, how long have you been practicing criminal law?

I was licensed to practice law in 1988. I have been practicing predominately criminal law since 1995.

Why did you go into this field?

I went into it out of necessity. From the time I was licensed, I worked for three different governmental agencies: the Texas Department of Agriculture, the Texas Senate, (General Counsel on the Agriculture and Elections & Ethics Subcommittees) and what was then the Texas Water Commission (now Texas Commission on Environmental Quality). I had a strong background in the agricultural and environmental areas and followed my desire to be in public service. I was also single and carefree and was able to live quite nicely on a governmental salary.
In 1994, I got married and two children came with the marital package. Suddenly, I discovered, a family of four couldn't live near as well on a state salary. I then got a small business loan and started my own practice. As a struggling solo practitioner, you take what comes in the door. What slithered, er, walked in was mostly criminal and family law cases---i.e. people who had gotten in trouble one way or another. There's never a shortage of those. The criminal area of practice was fun and it grew. The other...not so fun and let's leave it at that, although I will take a family law case IF the retainer is right.

How many clients do you have at any one time?

I have a rather unusual, hybrid practice. The Law Office of Robert R. Smith has approximately 30 clients at any one time. I receive all income from those. I also am an associate with another attorney who has a high volume business with hundreds of clients. He pays me for assisting him with his clients. I also do the vast majority of his trial work. I am in court five days a week and probably substantively interact with about twenty clients each day.

What is your daily schedule, on an average day?
I arrive at the office at approximately 8:30 and check the early morning crises, er messages. Then I get a daily docket from the office staff and discuss the tasks with the other attorney with whom I associate. I take whatever files/information/documentation that I need and enter the courthouse between 9:00 and 9:30. I then prioritize which courts I attend. I may need to make an announcement as to whether I am ready for trial in a court before 10:00 a.m. I may need to attempt to resolve a case where my client will end up being released from jail if it can be concluded that day. Later in the morning, I do less urgent things such as resetting cases to buy more time for a client to finish counseling, or get more time to investigate the facts, or badger the prosecutors into coming around to my point of view, or especially TO GET PAID!
I return to the office between noon and 1:00 p.m. Upon returning, I look at the pink phone slips of urgent messages and ignore them. Yes, you heard me. I allow myself and hour or more to "decompress" and regain my sanity. That is MY time and is essential for keeping balance and perspective in the day. I watch "All My Children" play computer solitare, send funny emails to friends, or do something totally non-work related.
Afternoons are spent returning phone calls and business emails, maybe going over to a driver's license revocation hearing or an occasional afternoon docket, doing minor "housekeeping" tasks---such as getting a judge to sign an occupational driver's license for a client because I have lost the earlier hearing--- and undoing miscellaneous client screw-ups. "But judge, he said that he was in Llano with his sick mother and missed court because the transmission was out in his car...for the fourth time. Please don't issue the warrant." Or, "yes, yes, we admit that he tested positive for marijuana...and cocaine...and meth...and all seven hallucinogens, but he was clean of heroin, so that is a step in the right direction. Please don't revoke his bond. We'll get him into drug counseling!"
The four o'clock hour---Usually, one of the earlier pink messages is from mom, we'll call her Enabling Elaine. Her li'l darlin' Ronnie the Rogue has been arrested for [fill in the blank] --often a small amount of weed or a rock of cocaine or a very heinous Driving While License Suspended. "Ronnie just can't be locked up! What will it take Mr. Lawyer to return him to my loving arms?" "$750." By 4:15, Enabling Elaine is in my office with $612 and a sincere promise to get the balance soon. I pull the trigger and hastily scour the courthouse for a judge to sign a bond. I usually succeed in finding and conning, I mean, convincing a judge to give me a signature at 4:55 about 75% of the time. I get grief for it 100% of the time.
After five, that is when I get quiet time to actually read case law, draft a motion, etc. Saturdays are good for actual reading and writing. Weekends are also used for talking with witnesses or doing the bulk of trial preparation

How do you deal with the inevitable question, "How can you defend guilty people?"

Oh, that is easy. I tell them that I prefer to defend guilty people because there is no pressure. A judge once said that his job was to separate the truly evil from the truly stupid. I think that Mark would concur that the vast majority of people that each of us deal with are not evil, just fairly decent people that have a serious problem (drugs, alcohol, mental health, bad relationships) that leads to a violation of the law. Others are relatively normal people that get really dumb for a brief moment. There might be the teenager that decides to shoot up a mailbox for a prank. There's the high-testosterone macho man who picks a fight, gets the holy what-fer beaten out of him, then pulls a knife to even the odds.
But what if you have a truly evil, blackhearted demon who robs or tries to kill someone you ask? I do what I hope that you do in your own profession: your very best. I hope that my colleagues on the other side of the aisle do their very best. When that happens, the bad guy gets put away. If he or she goes free, then there were obviously problems with the case and justice gets served. If the rights of even a no-account scoundrel are protected, then our sacred rights---yours and mine---are certainly protected.
What happens if I do my best but the demon walks free because the prosecutor is lazy, unprepared or sloppy? (Inept prosecutors are a rarity in Travis and most of the other counties I've been in). All I can do is my best and not worry about it. The blame for turning loose of a guilty or dangerous person resides with the person who didn't do their best, not me.
The flip side of the coin is what happens if a defense attorney is lazy or sloppy and an innocent person is convicted? Then the blame lies solely with the defense attorney. In my interacting with my colleagues, I'm noted for making wiseacre quips, bad jokes, or excruciating puns in part of my banter and negotiations. It is my personality and part of my lawyering technique. However, when it is time to get serious about a case, I get serious. No jokes, no kidding, just hard, thorough preparation, because I could not face myself if an innocent person---or a guilty person for that matter---suffered because of my failure. That's why it is more stressful in dealing with an innocent person.

What is your proudest moment as a defense lawyer?

That's a tough question. It is hard because when I think back, there are many times when I can see that my lawyering has made a difference in someone's life. Most recently, I had the most loveable marijuana dealer I've ever known. His criminal record was HORRIBLE albeit non-violent. Nonetheless, he not only claimed that he had turned his life around, he took major actions and showed concrete proof that he was not all talk. As the case was pending, he kept showing me more and more results. I even had a letter from a Child Protective Services worker that said that she would unhesitatingly leave her child in his care. The prosecutor was tough, but fair and open-minded. She was sympathetic, but could not do less than 6 months in the state jail because of his history. Finally, with my last presentation and last document, she gave him a 12.44(a) reduction to time served and he walked out of the courthouse a free man---after I received numerous hugs and "God Bless Yous" from him and his family.
Another time, I represented an innocent man in an aggravated assault--stabbing---that really was legitimately self-defense. He had no other recourse. I got him out on bond and kept announcing ready for trial. Even the State realized it was a pathetically weak case for them.
While the case was pending, he got into a verbal argument with his wife and step-son. The stepson leaves the house so that everyone can cool off, but makes a final smart remark. My client pulls a gun and fires a shot to scare him and make him run faster. Unfortunately, the bullet ricochets off the pavement and strikes stepson in the buttocks. Now the State has my guy cold. He spends six months in the jail. However, when the dust clears, he walks out of jail with an eight year probation. His 9 year-old daughter was the apple of his eye and when he got out, she ran and hugged him and tears welled up in each of their eyes (mine too) like we had watched the ending of "Old Yeller." Today, six years later, he has been absolutely PERFECT on probation. The family is still together, and he is a good role model to his daughter others in his family.

What do you like best about what you do?

Now that is an easy question. It's all the people in the courthouse. It's the judges, the prosecutors, my fellow defense attorneys, the probation officers, the bailiffs, the court coordinators, the clerks---everybody. We are all friendly with each other. We are understanding of everyone's quirks. Most of all, we are willing to help each other out. Yes, we are adversarial at times, but we understand and respect that each of us is doing our job and doing it to the best of our abilities. It is like we all realize that we are all in this venture known as the justice system together and any one group can gum it up and make it unpleasant for all.

What do you like least?
Liars. I do not mind a client who says, "yes sir, I stabbed that guy". I despise a guy who says "See here, it's like this. This guy walked around the corner and ran into my knife...forty-seven times...backwards. That's the honesttogod truth! For real." Also, I do not like zealots of any stripe. I'm not talking about people who not only go down with the ship, but are still on the deck under 40 fathoms of ocean. Zealots are different from true believers. True believers are filing stays of execution for Mike Massmurderer at 11:59 p.m because they truly do not believe that the death penalty is just, Zealots say things like, "All cops are liars," or "all defendants are worthless piles of dung and do not deserve an ounce of mercy."

Anything else you are dying to share with my readers?!

I have just one vignette to share regarding Mr. Mark Pryor Esq. It is one of my prouder moments and typifies what it means when a prosecutor is not charged with "getting convictions" but rather "to see that justice is done." On a broader scale, it shows why the criminal practice in Travis County should serve as a model to other jurisdictions.
My client was a young man, mid-twenties and an absolute genius with the computers, a true savant. However, he did not have the common sense to pour water out of a boot. He was charged with being part of one of the infamous "Nigerian Scams." He was duped into believing that he could cash one of the scam artists' phony checks, keep a portion for himself as a handing fee and send the balance to Barrister Josiah at the special Lagos, Nigeria post office box. He didn't get far and wound up with a forgery charge.
His father brought him to court every time and provided me with copies of the email exchanges. The father explained that his son was so naive and unwise to the ways of the world that in response to an email from a Russian "girlfriend" that he had chatted with on the internet, his son went to the airport, sans luggage, wearing only a light windbreaker jacket, and carrying only $50 and attempted to buy a plane ticket to Moscow. . . in January.
I made my pitch to Mark, pointed out the young man and his father in the courtroom, and waited for Mark to respond with the requisite plea bargain dance of possibly reducing the charge to a misdemeanor, etc. Mark listened to me, looked at the documents, thought about it, and said, "Okay, I'll dismiss it." It took me a minute to collect my jaw from the floor. "Really?" I babbled befuddledly. Mark replied, "Sure, do you not want me to do it?" Then he explained why he took his action. I had presented some facts to support my argument, the fact that he had a very supportive parent carried significant weight with him, and he accepted my word that everything I presented was correct. [D.A.C. note: I remember this case now. The gentleman concerned truly was confused about why his actions were potentially a crime and was dismayed at being in trouble. I was confident he would not do anything like this again and as well as all the equitable arguments Bob has laid out, I really didn't think I could prove intent, and more importantly I didn't believe he did intend to defraud anyone.]
This story shows underscores several things. The most important is that in the dealings with the criminal justice system, an attorney's word is gold. If an attorney---prosecutor or defender---is untruthful or underhanded in even a small way, that person's career is very short and unsuccessful. That's what I like best about the practice of criminal law. Another thing is the fact that each of us was open minded and each of us sought a just and fair outcome. Mark didn't say, "your guy's guilty, don't give me any bleeding heart mess, plead it or try it." I did not say, "this is a bunch of bull pucky, bring in your cops and I kick your tail at trial." We were both open, honest, engaged in a respectful dialogue, and resolved the matter. Mark understood that fairness merited a dismissal and followed through. He was not concerned with covering his rear; just seeing that justice was done. And me? There was no judge solemnly reading the words "not guilty" off a jury's verdict form in a tense courtroom. There was no golden-throated oratory by me in an impassioned jury argument. Nothing glamorous. But my actions had made a difference in the life of a young man and his father. I am proud to be a lawyer, but I was especially proud that day.


  1. What a fantastic, fascinating interview! It's so neat to be able to sneak a peek at what goes on behind the scenes. Many thanks to you both.

  2. I have been examinating out some of your stories and i can state pretty this was nicely stuff. I will surely bookmark your blog and i will definitely share this great read with my closed friends.

  3. Interesting post!! I really enjoyed this post as it is an interview and all question are informative and well answered.

  4. I can learn a lot from this interview. I like the personality of this defense lawyer. We have the same like least. I don't like liars. People lied just to get what they wanted and not thinking other people.

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  5. Your Post is awe-inspiring. I have found many new things. Your way of staging is also fascinating. You have elected very incredible topic. I appreciated it.

  6. Its a very good post. I was very pleased to find this site.

  7. My cousin hired a criminal defense lawyer in Northfield Illinois. It's interesting to get into their heads a bit.

  8. I really like that quote that was from the judge: "my job is to separate the truly evil from the truly stupid". I think that is what the job is for most defense attorneys. I've worked as a security guard at a prison once and most the inmates were good people that just did something stupid. I grew really close to some of them and it's been a big eye opener.

  9. So, here's a friend and colleague Bob Smith, who has been a criminal defense lawyer for. . . well, let's let him tell us, eh? criminal defense

  10. The most important question that you need to ask a criminal lawyer before hiring him/her is the experience which he/she has in the field. You can also ask for names of some clients who were satisfied with the services provided by the respective criminal defense lawyer.

  11. Nice answers in replace of the question with real point of view and explaining about that.Joe Tacopina

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