Memo to Non-Criminal Defense Lawyers
My Civil (and Prosecutorial) Friends,
I know times are tough. The Republicans have gutted the civil justice system through tort deform. Family law and probate law and real estate law clients don’t have the money that they once had to spend on lawyers. Even in Houston, the economy is slowing down. I sympathize. Really, I do.
But if you aren’t an experienced criminal-defense lawyer, please stay out of the criminal courthouse unless you have experienced, competent supervision.
Any idiot can hold himself out on the internet to be a criminal defense lawyer or a DUI lawyer — all it takes is a website with the right keywords; no actual experience is required. People will call you, and some will hire you if your price quotes are low enough. But if you are just in it for the money, and don’t care whether you’re doing it well or badly, please reconsider. Not because I will call you out here like Jason Laas-Sughrue (though you can depend on my doing so) but instead because what you do down at the criminal courthouse affects people’s lives in ways that you have no experience with.
The work may look easy, but only because so many people do it badly. The most important part of the job is helping the accused decide whether to plead or go to trial. Many criminal-defense lawyers make the job look easy by always convincing their clients to plead. But if you’re taking the first offer the State makes, there’s more than a 99% chance that you’re making the wrong call. If all of your clients are pleading guilty — even to a reduced offer — many of them are getting screwed.
Believe it or not, defending people effectively — even making this one crucial decision — requires that a lawyer have not only talent and instincts, but also training, experience, and the credibility that comes from one’s adversary recognizing that one has these assets. The criminal defense attorneys doing the best work for their clients make it look easy either because they have all of those things and more, or because they have the humility to seek out the lawyers who have the training and experience they lack.
Down at the criminal courthouse people are playing for keeps. Even in the facially low-impact cases — the first-time misdemeanors — citizens accused face lifelong consequences. Even a probation remains on the accused’s record forever, making it difficult if not impossible for the accused to get the job or the apartment he wants. In these difficult economic times more than ever it’s critical for a person accused to do everything possible to clear his name. His lawyer needs to know all of the ways that a possible resolution might affect his future, and the subtle differences among various outcomes. Face it: you don’t. And there’s no book you can read to learn.
There are two ways to know how a given outcome will affect your client a year, five years, and twenty years from now: have the experience and education so that the answer is at your fingertips; or have the humility to seek out and ask someone who knows.
The Houston criminal defense bar is not a closed shop; we welcome those attorneys who would defend people and recognize that they don’t know what they’re doing. The Harris County Criminal Lawyers Association is full of people willing to help other lawyers become better; we even have a formal “First Chair / Second Chair” program so that lawyers with little criminal defense trial experience can shadow lawyers who have much such experience on cases from start to finish.
If you don’t have recent extensive criminal defense experience (prosecutorial experience is not the same thing), but you know what you don’t know and are willing to seek out those who do, there’s a good chance that you won’t shame the competent criminal defense bar. If you are too proud to know that you need help, though, please stay away from 1201 Franklin.
There’s no reason your pride should destroy anyone’s life but your own.
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