Thinking of becoming a criminal defence lawyer? 10 things to know:

When we think of the question “What makes a criminal defence lawyer really good?” thoughts of dramatic movie cross-examinations come to mind. Or perhaps the latest Netflix mini-series chronicling the day to day ethical struggles whereby clients recruit them as pawns for their dirty work.

More true to life, we may even think of famous defence lawyers who have successfully, or unsuccessfully, defended celebrities or offering advice while clients careened along freeways under police pursuit.

This article is not about that. It is not about cross-examination, ethical dilemmas, or even the latest Supreme Court cases in criminal law. Rather, let me offer ten pieces of more mundane advice that I hope serves as a practical checklist as you hit your stride towards becoming the lawyer you hope to be. To put it bluntly, this article is about survival. If you manage that, you can handle the rest yourself.

1) This is a hard f*#&ing job – get used to it.

criminal lawyer at desk working

On some days it’s hard to imagine a more difficult job that being a criminal defence lawyer.

We are the person at the party who quickly changes the mood of pleasant conversation when asked what we do for a living; worsened further when asked “how can you defend those people?”

Our days are spent cross-examining vulnerable witnesses who claim unspeakable acts happened to them, other days we are facing the stress of having a client who has placed all their trust into you go to jail for the rest of the life. We are often pushed to the limit of what any human can reasonably sustain on an intellectual level, while we write complicated briefs on obscure legal principles.

We are routinely looked upon with disdain from society, judged on our morals, and written with slanted revulsion in media reports of controversial cases. Chasing down payments from ungrateful clients or underfunded government aid, answering phone calls late in the evening awaking your family (sometimes on matters of critical importance, and more often on trivial matters that could have waited). And of course, the arguing. Arguing, arguing, and more arguing (with prosecutors, clients, police, jails, courts, clerks, parking attendants, etc.). Sometimes, all these things happen in just one day.

If you can manage all this, you should learn to love it.

2) Find a mentor and speak to them often

You can’t do this on your own.

Criminal law pulls at you from all sides: psychologically, intellectually, financially, and socially.

Having an experienced mentor is that omnipresent lifeline in times of crises. Have someone you can call about trial strategies, ethical dilemmas, financial best practices, and emotional support. If you don’t have one, get one.

Every great lawyer has had another great one (or several) behind them.  There are no exceptions to this rule.

mentoring criminal lawyer criminal law

3) If you don’t take care of yourself, you can’t help your clients.

The first rule of saving lives is not to become a victim yourself. Practicing criminal law is often no different.

One of the most common mistakes of fresh criminal defence lawyers (that regrettably is quite habit forming) is the inability to put yourself above everyone else.  This likely stems from a common trait of defence lawyers that they are quick to help anyone, at any cost, under any circumstances.  As laudable as this may be, it is unsustainable and ineffective.

A simple rule is that if you are not healthy, cannot afford to pay your own bills, or refuse to acknowledge your limitations in what can reasonably be accomplished by any human being in one day: you will fail, and you will take your clients down with you.

Placing yourself in a position of strength to help others is not selfish; in fact, it’s quite the opposite. An effective advocate is one who is alert, healthy, and financially secure. Clients need that from you more than they simply need you there at every appearance or whimsical request.

4) Don’t procrastinate.

Mason Cooley once said, “Procrastination makes hard things harder”. There is no greater application of this aphorism than in criminal law.

Court filing deadlines loom, clients are demanding, new clients come in, telephone calls and emails keep piling up, juniors or students need guidance, your car breaks down, Court is delayed, and so the list goes on.

If you can get something done now, do it.

…when your phone rings in 3 minutes with someone under arrest, you will be glad you did.

5) Persuasion has an infinite arsenal.

Leaving law school is like being given a hammer, a multi-tool, a box of screws, and being told to build a house. Sure, it can be done, but it ain’t going to be pretty.

Advocacy has an infinite arsenal of tools for persuasion and its up to you and your intellect to discover how to achieve the result you are after. This may mean calling opposing counsel on a Friday instead of a Monday, thinking of meticulous paper-trailed strategies that will take 12 months to unfold, or calling an expert witness on something unprecedented. Winning cases is a heck of a lot more than good cross-examinations.

Use power tools, cranes, and winches. Use chisels, nails, and hatchets. Steel, wood, stone, bubble gum, and whatever it takes to persuade. Your path to results in litigation should be as eclectic as architectural masterpieces.

6) Integrity and reputation are more important than winning.

It has been said a million times before, but it needs to be said again (and again…): your reputation is everything in this business, never sacrifice it for anything.

A successful career spanning decades can be brought down with one unfavourable headline or malfeasance.

It’s never worth sacrificing your ethics or integrity as a lawyer for the benefit of a win or one client’s favour. This truth holds more true than ever in the age of digitized information that never goes away.

Would you hire a lawyer to trust with your life after an unfavourable Google search of their name? Neither would your future clients.

7) Bad habits become a modus operandi quickly.

The systems you develop now will become the systems you have in place 10 years down the road.

Take the time to do them right from the beginning.  The extra 50% of time it may require to develop proper habits will save you countless hours in the end.  Inefficient or ineffective systems remain that way and will very soon become an irreparable time suck on your practice when you could be doing things that are more productive and profitable.

At an early stage, develop proper precedent systems, financial records, computer systems, bookkeeping strategies, client management, and anything else that will make you a better lawyer.  You won’t have time later, and habits quickly become the rule.

Do it right. Do it now.

8) There are far easier ways to make money.

If you went to law school to make good money, drive nice cars, have a nice house, and easily support your family, you should reconsider practicing criminal law.  If you are in this for the money, you are going to be disappointed.

Admittedly, there are some criminal defence lawyers who do well for themselves but these people are far and few between and getting further as time goes on. Those that have done well financially, could likely have made a considerable amount more practicing in another area of law.

Today’s practice of criminal law is financially crippled by myriad factors including underfunded legal aid programs, hyper-competition in metropolitan areas, an ever-increasing reluctance of clients to retain lawyers and search for answers on the internet, and systems that are designed to triage private lawyers out of the process altogether to name a few.

Money isn’t everything, but for those that think its really important, I suggest you look elsewhere.

making money criminal law how much

9) There is no precedent as good as your mind.

A precedent is only as valuable as the lawyer writing from it.

While precedents serve as an invaluable tool to frame issues, flag relevant case law, and formalize your argument; they must always be taken for nothing more than what they are. Your value as a lawyer derives from your ability to think critically, strategically, and specifically.

An excellent factum or legal document starts with an excellent precedent, countless hours of research and thought, critical analysis, fact specific application, and in the end bears little resemblance to what you started with. Clients will pay you well for your mind, but not for your ability to copy what someone else wrote.

10) Slow down.

fast paced criminal lawyer

Slow. Down. You are far less likely to stumble when walking at a controlled pace.

Slow down in your submissions, slow down in your client meetings, slow down in your accounting, slow down when driving.

Slow down.

It’s a long career ahead and and your clients demands are not as urgent as they think they are. As a lawyer, you set the pace, not the client. Act carefully and deliberately. Know that it’s far more time consuming to do things incorrectly and repair the mistake, then it is to take the time to do it right the first time. Anything you do in criminal law is highly complex with many options. Taking the time in advance to map the proper path for you, and your client, will bring considerable success to you.