About My Job: The Attorneys at Law

by Conor Friedersdorf

On death row:

I am a capital habeas lawyer; I represent people who have been sentenced to death.  People who have not done this work almost always fail to understand that my clients are human beings.  People chose to believe the myth that each of my clients is Hannibal Lecter--the devious mastermind who has no soul, no capacity to have feelings for other people--but I've been doing this a while and I've yet to meet that guy.  Instead, I've met human beings.

In the world of finance:

I'm a big-firm, Wall Street lawyer and have been doing corporate finance transactions for Fortune 100 companies for 15 years.  People hear I am a Wall Street lawyer and say things like "wow, so you get to see all the conniving and the stealing."  Um, no, actually, never.  Quite the opposite.  In my experience BigLaw lives by a code of excellence, honor, truthfulness in disclosure, reasonable due diligence and fairness.  From my seat, the law is still the noble profession that my grandfather told me it was.

A defense attorney:

Being a Public Defender is a spiritual practice. I’m a criminal defense attorney for the Office of the Public Defender.  I defend people charged with everything from a second marijuana conviction, all the way to murder, robbery, and sex crimes( including rape and child molestation.)

When people find out what I do, the first thing they ask is, “What do you do if you know that your client is guilty?” Most of my clients are guilty.  But they still deserve a defense.  I don’t do this work just for the Constitution; although, I love that document like only a lawyer can.  For me, being a public defender is a spiritual practice.

When people need my help, my answer is always, “Yes.  I will help you.”  It doesn’t matter who they are or what they are charged with.  It doesn’t matter if they are guilty or innocent.  It doesn’t matter if this is their first felony or their twentieth felony.  I will help.  Period.

I’m not a Christian in the traditional sense.  But I consider this attitude of service to be in line with Christ, who loved and aided without regard for the past action of the sinners in front of Him. Most of the prosecutors in our town are Southern Baptist, or some variation on that. But if Jesus had lived today, and if He had been a lawyer, He wouldn’t would not be a district attorney, putting people into prison.  Jesus would have been a Public Defender.

A prosecutor speaking on behalf of defense attorneys:

I am a career prosecutor having worked for nearly 30 years in the field of criminal law.  I  have been a federal prosecutor for the last 22 years.  During that time I have worked with, and against, hundreds of criminal defense attorneys.

Two myths about criminal defense attorneys persist in popular culture.  First, most people outside “the system” believe criminal defense attorneys are barely better than their clients.  The perception is that defense lawyers lie, cheat, and generally game the system aiming to turn dangerous criminals loose on society.  That has not been my experience over the last three decades.  Most criminal defense conscientiously carry out the often unpleasant task of convincing a criminal defendant that he is hosed and needs to plead guilty.   I cannot emphasize how important that task is to the proper functioning of the criminal justice system.  To put it simply, the system would break down if someone did not make sure the government has dotted its “I’s” and crossed its “t’s” and then went to work on the client to make sure he is one of the over 90% of criminal defendants who plead guilty.

The second myth  concerns a specific subset of criminal defense attorneys known as public defenders.  The perception is that public defenders are fresh out of law school losers who cannot get a real job.  There is some truth to “fresh out of law school” observation.  However, most public defenders’ office, (like most prosecutors’s offices), place their inexperienced lawyers in arenas where they can accumulate experience without unduly harming the legal interests of their clients.  It is unusual for young public defenders to be representing defendants charged with extremely serious crimes.  Public defenders pick up trial experience at a rate that FAR surpasses that of private practitioners and rapidly become experts in the field of criminal law.  I cannot tell you how many times I have seen criminal defendants fire able, seasoned public defenders so they can hire a “real lawyer” to represent them.  Almost without exception, the private practitioner will have far less trial experience than the public defender who was originally appointed to represent him or her.

The criminal justice system has many problems and needs many improvements.  But as someone who has spent his entire career facing off against defense attorneys I can tell you that crooked, corrupt and dishonest defense lawyers are not a primary problem.

In private practice:

I am a lawyer, in private practice, representing disabled people trying to get Social Security disability benefits. Things that surprise people about the Social Security disability system:

1. How long it takes. Appeal periods of three to five years are common. Yes, you can lose everything while waiting--cars, home, health insurance.

2. The Kafkaesque randomness. Your case could be assigned to adjudicators who are smart, hardworking, and humane. Or it could be assigned to adjudicators who are dumb, lazy, and convinced every applicant and her doctors are frauds. If you draw the latter kind of adjudicators, it doesn't matter how thoroughly your doctors document your disability--you'll be denied, and will have to appeal and hope for a better draw on appeal.

People assume that as citizens and taxpayers, they will be treated by their government with basic respect and decency. They are shocked to find that in many cases, it ain't so.

A civil trial lawyer:

I am a civil trial lawyer. I handle all manner of cases from personal injury to commercial litigation. I work for myself and  the vast majority of my client base are regular people, not giant corporations. Without lawyers like me who feel an obligation to represent regular people and small businesses inexpensively, the system does not work. Legal aid is relatively ineffective, in that, it does not help the middle class (I know, what middle class? It is all but disappearing). Without lawyers who sacrifice huge salaries and security by not working in major firms with large corporate clients, the system becomes much like the rest of America: he with the money can avail himself of the advantages it provides. We do our best to keep that in check, though sometimes unsuccessfully. We are sometimes outspent. We often barter with clients to help defray legal fees, but we have families to take care of ourselves and must get paid at some point.

Another defense attorney:

I am a criminal defense attorney. There is a widespread belief that our society is too "soft" on crime and that criminals get off on "technicalities. People tend to believe these myths until their loved ones get caught up in the system. My client's families are always horrified at just how brutal the criminal justice system is and how uncaring the prosecutors and judges can be.

And those "technicalities?" First, few people escape punishment for that reason.

Second, those are our constitutional rights that we are talking about--the right to be free from illegal search and arrest and to not be forced to confess. Frequently it is those screaming for less government who are willing to throw us all under the bus of criminalization and long term incarceration. Meanwhile I am just trying to help individual citizens have some opportunity to get just a little fairness.

A clerk for an appellate judge:

I am an attorney and I work as a career clerk for an appellate judge.  My list is a mile long.  My number one: An appeal is not a do-over.  I hear people say, "he's just going to appeal it" all the time as if a trial court's decision is meaningless. Appellate courts are concerned, mainly, with issues of law and do not reverse factual findings made in a trial court except in very exceptional circumstances.
Yes, the appellate process can take a long time. Yes, there are numerous avenues for criminal defendants to appeal their conviction and their sentence. All of these systems are there to protect the innocent.  But appeals are rarely successful and criminal appeals even less so since most criminal trials are jury trials and appellate courts hate reversing a jury verdict.

A former prosecutor:

I hate the fact that there is a false meme out there: because so many women are now attorneys there is no discrimination in the legal profession, especially state jobs, particularly as prosecutors.

I worked as a prosecutor for the state, and almost 80% of the women whom I started out with are gone from their state jobs, myself included - gone because the males were getting quicker promotions, and quicker pay raises. Female prosecutors are also relegated to the domestic violence and sexual assault crimes, while the male prosecutors get the homicides, burglaries, drug, and property crimes.

The judges even have a name for it for certain District Attorney offices - the "girl ghettos".