As a veteran criminal defense attorney, I’ve heard just about every bad lawyer joke there is — like this one:
“When a person assists a criminal in breaking the law before the criminal gets arrested, we call him an accomplice.
When a person assists a criminal in breaking the law after the criminal gets arrested, we call him a defense lawyer.”
Surely, attorneys enjoy a good laugh as much as anyone and lawyer jokes are (mostly) good clean fun.
But they also illuminate some of the common myths about lawyers, including defense attorneys.
Given the widespread misconceptions about the practice of criminal law, many individuals don’t understand the vital role we play in balancing the scales of justice.
Above all, the bedrock principle of the criminal justice system in the United States is that anyone accused of a crime is innocent until proven guilty.
Moreover, in the landmark Supreme Court ruling in Miranda v. Arizona, the high court held that individuals accused of a crime must be informed of their rights — not the least of which is their right to an attorney.
Practicing Criminal Law 101
Lawyers wear many hats, and not the red, yellow, and blue hats you may remember from the LSAT.
Not only are we representatives of our clients, we are also officers of the court.
In this capacity, we have an obligation to promote justice and the effective operation of the judicial system.
At the same time, we also have a duty to always put the best interests of our clients first.
Ultimately, our job is to protect the rights of criminal defendants while balancing those important responsibilities.
In any event, a successful outcome frequently hinges on asserting valid defenses that may be available.
This is not a question of myths, but rather a matter of facts — the evidence should stand on its own.
In short, practicing criminal law is a serious undertaking that requires specialized knowledge and skill.
The very future of our clients, as well as crime victims, can be greatly impacted by our decisions and actions.
This is why it is essential for a defense attorney to have an ethical road map: Myths are the stuff of ancient gods and goddesses.
In that spirit, let’s take a moment to debunk some of the common myths about criminal defense attorneys.
Myth Number 1: Public Defenders Are Just As Good as Criminal Defense Attorneys
Prior to the Miranda ruling in 1966, the Supreme Court ruled that the Sixth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution requires the government to provide legal representation to indigent criminal defendants (Gideon v. Wainwright 1963).
Today, public defenders serve a vast, underserved community.
Unfortunately, the public defender’s offices in most jurisdictions are staffed by newly minted attorneys who are often underpaid and overburdened with cases.
Although some public defenders provide first-rate legal representation, many have a limited ability to focus on each case, while others may not have a stake in the outcome.
On the other hand, experienced criminal defense attorneys can fully leverage their knowledge, skills, and resources to build the best line of defense.
Myth Number 2: All Criminal Defense Attorneys Are the Same
As with any other profession, there are good attorneys and bad attorneys.
The difference comes down to their experience, skill, and most importantly, their track record.
The only way to build a widely respected criminal defense practice is by winning cases.
An experienced defense attorney knows how the legal system works and understands the tactics that a prosecutor will likely use in trying a case.
While some criminal defense attorneys advise their clients to quickly accept plea deals, a dedicated lawyer knows how to weigh the strength of the prosecution’s evidence and assess the prospects of an acquittal.
Myth Number 3: Any Attorney Can Defend Someone Against a Criminal Charge
If someone has been injured in an accident, would an attorney who practices entertainment law be able to handle the case?
A successful injury claim requires having an attorney well-versed in the law of negligence.
Similarly, an estate planning attorney is not the best choice to defend someone against a criminal charge.
While attorneys often practice more than one area of law, it takes an attorney who is comfortable in the criminal courts to achieve a successful outcome.
Myth Number 4: Criminal Defense Attorneys Are Shady
Defense attorneys are often portrayed in the media, movies, and television as morally bankrupt defenders of common criminals.
While there are bad actors in all walks of life, most criminal defense attorneys understand the need to balance their ethical obligations to the criminal justice system with their duty to serve clients.
Moreover, becoming an attorney takes years of study, as well as a significant financial investment.
An informed attorney will not jeopardize his or her license to practice law by engaging in unethical practices just to win a case.
Myth Number 5: Criminal Defense Attorneys Lead a Glamorous Life
When not being portrayed as shady and sleazy, defense lawyers are painted as swashbuckling avengers of the wrongly accused, dazzling juries with their righteous closing arguments.
The reality is that the work of most criminal defense occurs outside of the courtroom — conducting investigations, reviewing pleadings, drafting and filing motions, and making other pre-trial preparations.
Certainly, vindicating a client is fulfilling, but when the rubber meets the road, it takes years of hard work and dedication to become an accomplished criminal defense attorney.
Over the course of my practice, I’ve handled all types of criminal cases that were ultimately decided based on evidentiary standards and burdens of proof — not myths.
Moreover, being a good defense attorney is not about winning arguments, but building a case based on facts, logic, and reason.
At the end of the day, navigating the criminal justice system means fostering relationships, not only with our clients, but with all the participants — law enforcement, prosecutors, judges, and court clerks.
The best way to gain the trust of your clients — and your adversaries — is by being an honest broker, not a mythmaker.