Why Criminal Defense?

After graduating from Vanderbilt Law School in 2000, I began working at a large law firm in Phoenix, Arizona. While my position was as a commercial litigation associate, I quickly learned that the “litigation” component of my job consisted almost entirely of researching caselaw and writing various motions and legal memoranda. I seldom, if ever, went to an actual courthouse. Civil cases tend to drag on for years, and the client was most usually a corporation being sued by an individual or another company for some alleged wrongdoing. If I did a great job, my work might influence more favorable settlement terms for the client. I was paid well, but was ultimately unsatisfied with performing what I termed the “legal gymnastics” of filing endless motions and responses.

I left the law firm in 2002 and joined the Maricopa County Public Defender’s Office. My former colleagues were shocked: why on earth would I willingly leave a coveted position with the region’s premier law firm, take a drastic pay cut, and become a public lawyer who defends criminals? Maybe becoming a prosecutor would be understandable, but a criminal defense attorney?

At the time, I did not have a complete answer. I knew I wanted to have a direct and positive impact for my clients. I wanted to actually go to court. I wanted my work to accomplish something tangible. And I also, frankly, enjoyed the Go Screw Yourself nature of the career change. They could have their self-righteousness; I would be Righteous.

Without a doubt, working at a Public Defender’s office in a large metropolitan area is the single best route to becoming an effective and experienced criminal attorney. After a few weeks of training, a new lawyer is thrown into court, handling misdemeanor and lower-level felony cases. The clients range from career criminals to college students to housewives to drug addicts. The cases include every conceivable bad thing a person can do other people, property, the community, and even animals. Many new attorneys quickly wilt under the pressure of the daily hearings, the angry clients wanting release from jail, the condescending prosecutors, and the jaded judges. Others, including me, find themselves exhilarated by the challenges and instant rewards of a successful defense strategy or argument. I absolutely loved the work. I loved seeing the smile of a man released from custody, a smile unlike any other.

And I found my answer, the complete answer, as to why an attorney would defend “criminals.” In all cases, a good criminal defense attorney endeavors to receive fair and just treatment for the client. Sometimes that comes in the form of a more reasonable jail sentence. Sometimes that comes as reduced or dismissed charges. And sometimes that comes as an acquittal after a trial. Always, you are advocating for someone placed in the crosshairs of a complex and harsh judicial system. And that person might be completely innocent. On day one of a case, after an accusation has been made and charges are filed, you usually do not know whether the defendant sitting in front of you is actually guilty. Defendants often claim innocence, so the truly innocent see their cries ignored by a system long numbed to them. Without an effective defense attorney fighting for them, the innocent can easily be wrongly punished.

Towards the end of my tenure at the Public Defender’s Office, I represented a man accused of drugging and raping his neighbor. The man had a checkered past, and so he received no benefit of the doubt when he protested his innocence. The police arrested him on the spot. The judge ordered that he remain in jail throughout the case pending trial. The prosecutor offered a very harsh plea agreement to many years in prison. In the face of this, I did my job for my client. I worked hard to investigate and challenge the alleged evidence against him. After several months, I was able to convince the prosecutor that my client was innocent of the charges, and that the allegations were a lie. The government dismissed all charges, and he was set free.

And that is why I am a criminal defense attorney. Because innocent people are accused of crimes, and without effective representation, they can be and are wrongly convicted and punished. Because “presumed innocent” is a misnomer. Because even the guilty deserve to be treated fairly.