Adrian and I went into solo (or is it duet?) practice straight out of law school. Throughout law school, I intended to do criminal defense and nothing else. I wanted to fight the big, bad government. My goal, which I made clear to everyone around me, was to immediately hang out a shingle upon receipt of my bar number. I set aside time to watch court. I did a public defender clinic, attended public defender new hire training, spoke with a number of judges, and met as many good criminal lawyers as I could. I bombarded every criminal lawyer and paralegal I encountered with questions and did about two years of work as a clerk and research assistant for a prominent criminal defense attorney who had his own solo practice. He led me through a number of his cases from start to finish, showing me exactly what he did and why he did it. Adrian took a fairly similar path. All but a handful of people at ASU discouraged us, but we were undeterred.
When we first started the firm, we did very little advertising (we still don’t do very much, but that’s beside the point). The attorneys we knew referred to us those clients who couldn’t afford their fees. Judges and lawyers helped us get indigent defense contracts. I never felt like I was doing anything completely on my own because there were so many highly qualified people willing to help us when we needed it. After about a month of being out on my own, one of the state’s best criminal lawyers was generous enough to sit down with me and spend over an hour discussing everything he would do if he was handling each of my cases. Experience like that was invaluable.
In the beginning, we charged next to nothing, and almost every case was a flat fee. If a client insisted on being billed hourly, we did it at a ridiculously low rate and cut out the time we spent learning things more experienced lawyers would have known already. We devoted an incredible amount of time to each of our cases. When I added up my time on some of my first misdemeanor flat fee cases, each was over a hundred hours. I was terribly inefficient, but I made sure clients never had to subsidize my learning curve. Neither of us had to lie to clients. We were completely honest about our experience, and although some clients probably didn’t hire us because of that, I doubt we would’ve been a good fit anyway.
One of the reasons we went out on our own was because we thought it would actually give us better training than any other route. I think it did. If we had worked as a prosecutor or public defender, we wouldn’t have had as much choice (if any at all) over who taught us. Instead, we went to the best lawyers we could find, the ones judges and other criminal defense lawyers recommended. They were almost always happy to help. We also wanted to control our caseload. That worked too, as we’ve never had to take more cases than we felt comfortable handling.
Most importantly, aside from occasionally covering for other defense attorneys, we only appear in court on behalf of our clients. To me, that’s a big deal. We know everything possible about them and their cases, as we represent them from beginning to end. I have the utmost respect for public defenders, but if I had gone that route, I would have likely spent a lot of time sitting in court doing coverage. I wanted clients. I wanted cases. I wanted to avoid appearing in court on behalf of people who weren’t my responsibility.
If we’d gone to work for the public defender’s office, we still would’ve represented clients more or less immediately. To some extent, we would have still had people’s lives in our hands, and they would’ve received representation from inexperienced lawyers. They aren’t any less entitled to competent representation than someone who pays. I wouldn’t have viewed theirs as training cases any more than I viewed my private clients’ cases as training cases. Every lawyer has first clients. Ours just happened to pay us.
In his post, Scott Greenfield says he expects new criminal defense lawyers to inform him that he’s wrong by insisting that they’re great. I might be a new lawyer by his standards, but I’m not going to claim I’m great or make any other self-aggrandizing, unverifiable claims. That would be meaningless, as anyone on the internet can make themselves look like Gerry Spence. I hope this post doesn’t come across as bragging or self-promoting. What I want to get across is that going straight into solo practice can provide as much training and supervision as a more traditional career path. The drawbacks Adrian and I encountered, like more liability, more expenses, more risk, longer hours, and less-than-steady pay at the outset, were things that affected us personally. They weren’t to the detriment of our clients.
Grudging soon-to-be solos who do it straight out of school because they have no other options may indeed need advice to minimize the harm when they’re unleashed on the public. However, the people who are prepared and choose to do it for good reasons are just as deserving of sage advice and support. If you make competence top priority and lay the proper groundwork, there’s no reason not to go right into solo practice criminal defense.
Filed under: Law School, Practice in General, Solo Practice · Tags: bar, criminal defense, indigent defense contracts, judges, Law School, lawyers, learning, mentor, new lawyer, simple justice, Solo Practice