Often a question that criminal attorneys receive from others outside of the profession is “How can you defend someone who is a criminal?”
There is a moral dilemma inside of them that they feel would prohibit them from being able to practice criminal law. Being a criminal defense attorney is far more involved than just trying to help someone beat a criminal charge. As you enter our criminal law practice, here are five tips that will help you be an effective and compassionate criminal defense attorney:
1) Trust, but verify—As the old saying goes, there are two sides to every story, and sometimes your client can come up with a doozie. Take diligent notes about everything your client says and make sure you have an accurate picture of what he is describing. From that point, it’s time to review the Commonwealth’s evidence which can occasionally be more comprehensive with body cam footage and some additional eye-witness accounts. Make sure you note the inconsistencies as well as the corroborative evidence that you find during your review. Going to court with only your client’s word can often lead to some unpleasant surprises during your trial.
2) Life after Court—To be an effective criminal defense attorney, it’s important to understand everything that is going on in your client’s life. Find out her aspirations, if she has a job interview coming up, just started a job, or if she is applying to school. She may not realize that this criminal charge could impact her well after her court date. For example, a reckless driving charge can have a very negative impact on the career of a commercial driver. Criminal offenses can also impact immigration or visa status for some clients. Knowing more about your client will help you make sure that you are putting her in the best position for success in the future.
3) Call Me, Maybe—When preparing for your case, make sure you are frequently in contact with your client and return his calls as soon as possible. Make sure you have a few different ways to communicate with him either by phone, email, mail or in person visits. Occasionally a client will not have a voicemail set up or his phone number will change during the course of the representation. Be ready for that and have another way to contact him. Be flexible when dealing with your clients as it will benefit you in the long run. It may seem like a hassle to communicate in a manner that is not your preference, but if it helps you be prepared for trial, it is definitely worth it.
4) Bedside Manner—A term borrowed from the medical profession, but very applicable in criminal defense work. Occasionally, it will be required of you to give some difficult news to your client. Whether that be an inconsistency in her story or the growing possibility of jail time, don’t let the delivery of that news become routine to the point that you’re calloused to the situation. Reducing a ten-day jail sentence to a two-day jail sentence may seem like a victory, but could be devastating to your client. You will need to be graceful and thoughtful with your approach.
5) One Is the Loneliest Number—When working with a criminal client, especially one that is incarcerated, it’s important that he knows you are on his side. He will perceive nearly every person since his arrest as opposition. The people that called the police, the arresting officers, jail staff, Commonwealth’s attorneys, and even the judge will be perceived by your client as a system that is working against him. That is the importance of defense counsel. No matter what that defendant is facing, he will know that he has at least one person in his corner. It’s important to be his advocate and be on his team throughout the representation. Regardless of your own personal feelings, he is entitled to a defense.
When defending a client in a criminal case, it’s important to understand that your goal is not always an acquittal. It’s navigating another person through the complex, confusing and oftentimes frightening criminal justice system. It’s about getting them safely to the other side and then helping them find a way to move forward.
James “Rob” Elliott is a general practice attorney from Yorktown, Virginia. He is the Owner and Managing Attorney for the Law Office of James R. Elliott.