Straight Into Solo

 Posted on March 24, 2009 in Uncategorized

New York criminal-defense lawyer Scott Greenfield really doesn't like the idea, but prescribes two options for "when there's no other choice."

Virginia prosecutor (and former criminal-defense lawyer) Ken Lammers did it himself, and offers "option C: nose to the grindstone."

Miami criminal-defense lawyer Brian Tannebaum, who got himself a fancy-pants PD gig out of law school, calls it a "dumb ass idea" (while somehow managing not to link to either Scott's or Ken's post).

Chandler, Arizona criminal-defense lawyer Matt Brown says that "going straight into solo practice can provide as much training and supervision as a more traditional career path."

And South Carolina criminal-defense lawyer Bobby Frederick says that everybody else is right.

We criminal-defense lawyers have an obligation not only to provideeffective representation to our own clients, but also to ensure thatthere will be effective representation for future generations ofclients. If new lawyers who should be criminal-defense lawyers aren'tstarting their own practices, they'll be going to work doing somethingother than criminal law (a flat-out waste of time), getting jobs working ascriminal-defense lawyers (few jobs, and far between), or getting jobs as prosecutors.

Do we want virtually all of the next generation of criminal-defense lawyers to be people who have grown up in DAs' offices, learning to think and try cases like prosecutors? I think the answer is "Hell, no!" If I'm right, then experienced criminal-defense lawyers should be encouraging young lawyers to start their criminal defense practices out of law school and helping them be better lawyers by offering them Scott's Options A (connect with an experienced, competent criminal-defense lawyer) or B (find yourself a mentor).

I don't know about Miami or New York, but in Houston there is a gap in representation. People who are indigent and can't make bail get appointed counsel (of varying, though in the main acceptable, competence). People who have lots of money can carefully select from a wide variety of lawyers to find the one they trust best. People who make bail but don't have a lot of expendable income (I have called them the working poor), however, are stuck. Most Harris County judges will not appoint counsel to someone who makes bail, or will do so only reluctantly, so the working poor are pressured to hire low-bid lawyers.

There are, broadly, two types of lawyers charging low rates for representation in criminal cases. On the one hand there are lawyers who have been practicing for a long time and have built up a volume plea practice, copping each client out as expeditiously as possible. On the other there are lawyers who are young and hungry and willing to discount their aspirational fees to build up their practices.

This is the niche in which the newly-minted criminal-defense lawyer on her own can do the most good: representing zealously those who would otherwise hire a quick-plea specialist.

Scott notes, correctly, that competence in representing the accused takes at least three (and more likely 10) years to attain. But here's the thing: the new lawyer taking a case for $500 doesn't have to be as competent as the ten-year lawyer. She just has to be more competent than the other lawyers taking cases for $500.

(She also has to be willing to work for minimum wage or less on some cases, have the humility to recognize that she is out of her depth, and follow Scott's Option A or Option B as well as Ken's Option C (work hard, work smart, be frugal).)

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