Alot more law students initially contem- plate careers in criminal law than those who eventually pursue them. Here is our perspective for lawyers who have steered clear of crime on what life is like for those of us who didn’t.
Many people enroll in law school with images of themselves
as criminal defense lawyers because of the drama that seems
inherent in the work. Perhaps To Kill a Mockingbird could have
focused on a challenging contract Atticus Finch had to write
for the sale of a hardware store or on his ordeal persuading
the Maycomb County planning office to approve a new subdivision. Instead, Harper Lee took the easy way to dramatic
intensity — she gave Finch a rape trial.
How does the reality of criminal defense work measure
against its portrayal in fiction? Well, the fiction is a lot more
exciting than the lives we live (you guessed that, didn’t
you?), but we do experience some of the drama that inspires
For example, the dramatic crucible in most criminal lawyer
fiction is the jury trial. In real life, criminal defense lawyers do
try cases, and usually before juries. In criminal trials, liberty is
on the line. Every now and then, for some defense lawyers, life
is on the line. When one knows that one’s client will go away
for many years if the trial goes badly, it’s easy to keep one’s
mind in the game.
Trials happen often in criminal cases because compromises
that satisfy both sides are difficult to find. In civil litigation, the
dollars can be sliced very fine to get to a settlement everyone
can live with. In criminal cases, though, stark and unavoidable
divides separate categories of outcomes: guilty or innocent,
felony or misdemeanor, imprisonment or community service
hours, sex offender registration or not. Compromising is especially difficult in sex offense cases, a big part of our practice.
The defendant usually does not want to agree that he or she is
even a low-level sex offender.
Criminal defense at the trial court level is not a desk job.
Most criminal defense attorneys spend the bulk of their time
on the road — in the courthouse, interviewing witnesses, and
visiting clients in various jails. Every law job is part scholarship, part action. In trial-level criminal defense, the balance
tilts strongly toward action.
There are motions to file and briefs to write, of course. But
the variety of issues in criminal practice is not as great as what
many civil litigators encounter, so a criminal lawyer’s legal
research and writing skills get exercised less vigorously and
maybe less frequently.
A criminal defense lawyer spends a lot of time reading
police reports and talking to cops. From this comes wisdom
that most lawyers don’t receive. Detectives often give us
handy tips, such as, “Follow the server to the restaurant’s
credit card machine so no one can steal your identity.” Thus
one can live more safely — or just become paranoid. Criminal defense lawyers also see a lot of text messages and self-ies that teenagers should not be sending. This can make you
a parent who gives lots of lectures and frequently inspects
Atticus Finch lost that rape case, but most fictional criminal defense lawyers do well in trial. They enjoy happy endings. In the real world, Finch’s experience is more common. In
"How does the reality of criminal
IN THE FOOTSTEPS OF
defense work measure against
its portrayal in fiction?"
Fiction and Reality
for Modern Criminal
Defense Lawyers by Aimée Sutton and David S. Marshall
A Day in the Life