» Practice in General, Professionalism » Why Do We Do It?

Why Do We Do It?

I can’t remember ever disagreeing with anything Bobby G. Frederick has written over at the South Carolina Criminal Defense Blog, but I definitely don’t feel the same way he does about something he says in this post. I really like the term “cause lawyer,” which I’ve never heard before, but I can’t say I agree with this:

Defense attorneys, by and large, don’t do this for the money. We have to pay the bills and run an office, and compensation is good, but we do this because we love what we do and because we believe in what we do, whether it is helping people or whether it is fighting to preserve what little rights we have left as citizens.

This might be petty, as I’m just disagreeing with his generalization because my generalization would be different, but I think the vast majority of defense attorneys do it for the money. I also think an extremely small number of criminal defense attorneys are actually cause lawyers. That includes public defenders. I think you could probably fit all of the cause lawyers in Arizona in one courtroom. It’s a big state, and there’s no shortage of criminal defense lawyers.

I think most defense attorneys have at some point had a vague desire to help people, but I don’t see a lot of my colleagues really fighting for anything. They’re usually just mad about the daily headaches inherent in criminal practice. It’s more about them than it is about their clients. Their primary concerns involve office politics at the PD or keeping the lights on in their office. A friend of mine uses the term “broken lawyers.” I like that term too, and I think most defense attorneys fit in that category, not the “cause lawyer” category.

I see lawyers abandon their clients in some way or another every time I sit in court. I see attorneys talk to the judges ad naseum about privileged information when their clients miss hearings. I’ve seen attorneys make illegal immigrants plead guilty to conspiring to smuggle themselves. I’ve seen pleas to higher-than-charged offenses. The vast majority of private attorneys rarely show up on time, and they almost never warn their clients. The clients just sit there looking desperate, wondering what’s happened to the guy they paid to help them. Cause lawyers wouldn’t do that, would they?

A lot of criminal defense attorneys aren’t much better out of court. When they talk about their clients, it’s as if they aren’t real people. They’re this group of rascally little children. “My clients just don’t get such-and-such.” “They just don’t understand this-or-that.” It isn’t unique human beings with families and jobs and hobbies and dreams; it’s a class of people they’d never befriend. I think that kind of attitude is especially prevalent with a certain type of public defender. Cause lawyers wouldn’t think like that, would they?

Seeing those things so frequently tells me most criminal defense attorneys aren’t cause lawyers. They don’t do it to fight for something, but because it was the first thing they learned after law school. I don’t know an awful lot of lawyers who have switched practice areas. They start with something and stick with it. They use what they’ve learned and try to make more money with it. I hear more defense attorneys say they left the PD for more money than I hear say they left to be able to give clients more personal attention. Most of the prosecutors I know who have become defense attorneys did it for the money, not because they couldn’t sleep at night knowing they might be sending innocent people to prison. Most people don’t become defense attorneys to make big money, but to be more comfortable. They need a job. Existing costs a lot. Most of the rest do it because they’re stuck. It’s a select few that do it to help people or fight to preserve our few remaining rights.

This is probably my most cynical post yet, but I’ve seen some particularly bad lawyering lately (posts will be coming soon). Because I’m curious if I’m the only one with such a gloomy outlook, I’d like to know what you think. Here a simple poll for my amusement:

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6 Responses to "Why Do We Do It?"

  1. […] You can also read a good discussion from an attorney in Arizona. […]

  2. Jon says:

    What would be the point, for a public defender, of a win/loss/deal record? The wins will be low, losses high, and deals even higher. Yet your client, barring a financial windfall, is your client for the duration of that case. Not only does it not accurately reflect the abilities of that lawyer…PD’s go to trials for many different reasons…but it does nothing to help the relationship with the client.

  3. fishbane says:

    “Defense attorney” means one who defends someone in a criminal trial. Talk all the crap you like about them, but generally, a defense attorney can be ranked, based on any number of things. One of the first rankings, I think, a criminal defendant should care about is how many cases the attorney in question has seen.

    I still think win/deal/loss records should be more public. No, it is not entirely fair, but the BBB isn’t, either.

  4. shg says:

    Now kids, we’ve got a big tent. We’ve got good, bad and everything in between, just like all the other kinds of law. Now shake hands and be nice to each other. You’re both on the side of the good guys.

  5. Matt Brown says:

    I can see that. Defense attorney is a tough term to define, especially in these tough economic times. I’ve noticed a lot of attorneys are taking on every single case they can get, which means a lot of new lawyers-who-take-criminal-cases are popping up.

  6. BFrederick says:

    I think you’re right. We’re not actually disagreeing, but it’s a matter of semantics. When I say defense attorney I’m usually referring to a fairly small subset of lawyers-who-take-criminal-cases. But, most attorneys in private practice locally who limit themselves to criminal defense (there are not many) probably also could be called cause lawyers.

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