Conversation with Jamilah D. LeCruise, 2020 Young Lawyer of the Year

Jamilah D. LeCruise received the YLC’s R. Edwin Burnette Jr. Young Lawyer of the Year award for 2020 earlier this year. Visit the VSB website here for more coverage. 

Tell us about your practice.

I have my own law firm in Norfolk, Virginia where I focus on criminal defense matters. I also handle traffic, expungement, and divorce cases. Prior to starting a solo practice, I worked as an assistant public defender for the City of Norfolk. During my time in practice, I have handled more than 1300 cases. I represent clients from all walks of life, of all ages, education levels, occupations, and backgrounds. These include professionals, college students, military service members, families in transition, the homeless, and elderly folk. My youngest client was a 12-year-old middle school student and my oldest client is a 94-year-old woman. I have experience with the Norfolk General District Court Mental Health Docket as well as the Circuit Court therapeutic dockets including the Drug, Mental Health, and Veterans Courts. A portion of my case load also includes court-appointed clients in the Norfolk General District Court and Norfolk Circuit Court who live below the federal poverty line.

How did you come to focus on criminal defense, and how can a young attorney or law student know whether criminal law would be a good fit? 

As an undergraduate, I had the special opportunity to intern at the Commonwealth Attorney’s office in Richmond.  I had a positive experience and my desire to practice criminal law as an attorney was cemented.  I went into law school wanting to be a prosecutor and even wrote my personal statement about that.

During my 1L summer, however, I worked for a law and human rights NGO in Ghana.  We came upon a kid who had been in jail for one-and-a-half years just waiting for a trial.  He had not been convicted.  The attorney had essentially neglected the case, so I contacted the attorney about picking up the case again.  About a month later, the judge let the kid out to be back with his family.  This experience made me want to try out the defense side.  I then interned for the Office of the Capital Defender in Richmond, and there learned I wanted the experience of frequently being in court.

It was very helpful for me to see both the prosecution and defense side of criminal law, so I would encourage anybody thinking about criminal law to try out both sides and see which you prefer.  In my experience, the best criminal law attorneys have experience on both sides.

Criminal defense is definitely not for everybody, but it can be very satisfying to represent individuals. You get a much better sense of this if you have a chance to observe criminal proceedings in-person so I would encourage anyone interested to go to court and watch real cases before graduating law school. Criminal defense has been a good personality fit for me because the defense attorney is in charge of most aspects of the case including trial strategy and other presentation techniques. It is great for those attorneys who want a lot of trial work and hands-on control of their cases. Criminal defense attorneys are lawyers for the people as opposed to lawyers for corporations. I enjoy seeing the occasional former client in the community doing well, working, and in a better situation than when we first met.

How did you come to start your own practice?

I knew coming out of law school that I wanted to start my own practice eventually and had the goal to have my own practice by the time I had been practicing for 10 years.  In 2015, however, I met another attorney at a local bar association meeting who was trying to exit law and was looking for someone to take over his practice.  I only knew criminal law at that point, and his practice had a domestic law component as well, so I had a bit of a learning curve.  I eventually learned everything I needed, but it would have been a smoother transition if I had shadowed more attorneys in the practice areas I was unfamiliar with or had more of a business background to help with the administrative tasks of running the firm.

What advice would you give to young lawyers?

Get to know the local judges and clerks. One of the best ways to build your brand is to establish a reputation as a young, hardworking lawyer who is willing to learn. Also, consider tailoring your practice to focus on a limited number of areas of law and branch out to a wider range of practice areas once you have mastered your core areas. Do not be tempted to take on too much. Make a commitment to focusing on developing your skills, which is most important to establishing your brand as a young lawyer. We are all aware of the importance of networking but try not to take on too many leadership roles or join too many boards and committees. Be sure you are able to allot enough time to your caseload while also participating in other activities to advance your career. Dedicate some of your free time to pro bono and volunteer work, which is sure to be fulfilling and help with maintaining a work-life balance.

What is your proudest accomplishment outside of law?

I really like to talk to students as much as possible.  I’ve talked with a lot of students who have never met a lawyer before and have the perception that the legal system, and the courthouse in particular, is only a scary thing.  They’ve never thought of the courthouse as somewhere you could go for a career, whether as a lawyer or otherwise.  I like speaking with them and helping them realize that it’s a possibility for them.

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