For many people, the role of a criminal defense lawyer is the stuff of Hollywood. Shows like Law and Order or CSI and movies like The Devil’s Advocate love to portray defense lawyers as being unscrupulous, able to find loopholes at the last minute to free their client or having a vendetta against the prosecution. Full of confidence and swagger, they employ tricks and smooth talking to sway a jury, and are shown disregarding the spirit of the law.
Only rarely are they shown in any other light. In the movies, the defense lawyer is seen celebrating victories at a bar or accepting pay offs from shadowy underworld figures. But like many things that are seen on TV or in movies, that isn’t the whole story.
Passing the Bar and Staying Within the Bar
Like any other type of lawyer, a criminal defense lawyer will invest up to eight years in school, and must undergo rigorous training in many areas of the law before they can be called to the bar. Once they pass the bar examination in their state, they usually join the American Bar Association and swear to uphold the ethics and standards of the organization. Not doings so can lead a lawyer to be disbarred. There are many reasons why a lawyer can be disbarred; a few of them are being convicted of a felony, disregarding the interests of their client, fraudulently impeding the administration of justice.
Disbarment in one state may lead to a lawyer being disbarred in another state. However, being disbarred is very rare, as in most cases clients mostly sue lawyers for malfeasance or will face stiff fines or other penalties from their association. Being disbarred is permanent; once a lawyer loses their law license in that state it can never be returned.
Criminal defense lawyers don’t just have mob clients or act for giant corporations; they handle prostitution, drug and DUI, wrongful imprisonment, theft, murder cases. Their clients come from all walks of life, from students and minors, schoolteachers and convicts. They represent political and environmental activists as well as mob cases. Whether it is an individual, organization or governmental agency indicted in a crime, a criminal defense attorney can represent them all. And there are many reasons why people choose to become one: some choose it for the challenge, others for the high pay, and there are many who choose it to protect the rights of those charged with a crime and to ensure that their voices are heard.
Different Types of Criminal Defense Attorneys
Another thing Hollywood tends to gloss over is how many different types of criminal defense lawyers there are. They can work in solo practices or multinational firms, as public defenders or in non-profits or activist groups. They can make anywhere from $30,000 to well over $300,000 depending on the type of practice they have. They are responsible for investigating the case and interviewing witnesses, researching case law and statues, building a defense and case strategy, preparing and arguing motions, arranging plea deals, and more. Defense lawyers often work long hours, and 18-hour workdays seven days a week is not unheard of. They are also responsible for communicating on their client’s behalf, making trips to prisons, or even across the globe if necessary. Their job revolves around acting in their client’s best interest and that’s often what Hollywood misconstrues.
There is a great difference between corruption and due diligence. In most cases, criminal defense lawyers operate under the presumption that their client is innocent, and it is their responsible to ensure that their client’s rights are protected. While legal technicalities make for great plot twists and villains, everyone deserves to have their rights protected. Only the assumption that everyone is equal under the law allows the justice system to function. And when prosecutors or police officers make errors or violate that principle it is the defense lawyer’s responsibility to ensure that those errors or violation do not taint or affect the trial in any way.
With the growing crime rate and overcrowding of the prisons, a criminal defense lawyer is part of a growing niche in the justice system. There to protect their client’s best interest and act as their advocate, defense lawyers often work long, arduous hours, and have an unjustly negative reputation. Hollywood loves to show lawyers as corrupt, or as interfering with the process of justice, but that can’t be further from the truth. Held to a high ethical standard with many years of training behind, the defense lawyer is an important part of the justice system.
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This article was written by Eric Zimmer, who is a criminal defense lawyer, and doesn’t like the stereotypes perpetuated by Hollywood.