Advice to a Young Criminal Trial Lawyer

Keep your overhead as low as possible. You need a good laptop. You don’t need a secretary.

Join your local, state, and national criminal-defense lawyers’ organizations, and join their listservs.

You don’t need ProDoc (unless you’re doing more than just criminal law). You might not even need an office at first – just a place where you can meet with your clients in private and have a high-speed internet connection. (If I had it to do over, I would consider working out of the courthouse for the first six months, spending all day there and watching other people work when I wasn’t working on my own cases.)

Answer your own phone whenever possible. When people need to talk to a criminal-defense lawyer, they need to talk to a criminal-defense lawyer. You’ll need a land line (so you can take collect calls from jail), but it can be forwarded to a mobile line. When you can’t answer your own phone, use an answering service. Nothing says “Hire someone else” quite like voicemail.

If your local courts have an online information service, subscribe.

Get admitted to practice in federal court.

If business is booming in a nearby county, having a presence down there might be a good idea.

Use a written contract. Ask someone you trust for a go-by.

Your clients are not your property. It will occasionally happen that a client fires you and hires someone else. Be of good cheer. Give his entire file back to him without a fuss (it’s his property; you can keep a copy at your own expense), and cooperate with new counsel.

Don’t lie to your clients. When potential clients ask your opinion of other criminal-defense lawyers, follow Thumper’s mother’s advice. Running down other lawyers makes you look petty. If you’re worth a damn as a criminal-defense lawyer, you don’t have any competitors. Nobody is the best lawyer for every case. Try to be the best lawyer for every case you have.

Don’t tell the State what your case is about until it’s too late for the prosecutor to woodshed the cop to get around your defense. (This is usually after the State has rested. Often it’s after the State has closed. Sometimes it’s after the jury verdict has come back.)

Charge at least what you think you’re worth. If a client owes you money, remind him to pay, but don’t work any less on the case for lack of payment. In most cases, by taking payments you have chosen not to be paid your entire fee. Once the non-paying client’s case is resolved, and before it becomes awkward, forgive the balance of the debt. Former clients who aren’t embarrassed about calling you are worth infinitely more than former clients who are.

Put up a website. It’s practically free advertising, and more and more people think you’re not real if you don’t have a website.

Decide now what kind of practice you want to have in a decade. Do you want to be known as a low-bid lawyer or a high-quality lawyer whom not everyone can afford? Be that kind of lawyer now. If you underbid someone else to get a case, explain to the client that you’re giving him a break and how you can afford to do so (because of your low overhead).

Never ever ever put a client on the record to protect yourself. Whether your client is acting contrary to your advice is none of the judge’s business, none of the prosecutor’s business, and none of the audience’s business. If you need to make a record showing that you advised the client not to do what he’s about to do, do it on paper in private.

If you don’t speak Spanish, learn.

Form a relationship with a good bondsman. There are lots of bad bondsmen out there who’ll leap at the chance to “go off” your clients’ bonds, to the client’s disadvantage and your consternation. Find out who they are, and avoid them.

Treat every case like a serious felony case. It may not seem like a big deal to you, but it’s likely the most serious thing that your client has ever faced.

If a client comes in and wants to pay you a nominal fee “just to get him probation”, decline. Treat each case like a trial case, even if you think it’s a plea case. The best plea offers generally come when you’re prepared for trial, and often trial preparation reveals defenses previously unimagined. You’re doing the client and yourself both a disservice when you don’t get paid enough to investigate and eliminate all possible defenses before pleading. There are more than enough lawyers scrambling for the two-hundred-dollar fees.

Never mislead your clients into pleading guilty. A class B or higher deferred adjudication probation remains on your client’s record forever. It remains a matter of public record until sealed (if sealing is even possible). Employers and landlords will hold it against them. Tell your clients this before they plead to deferred.

Avoid making predictions about what the board of pardons and paroles will do.

Law school did not prepare you for this. The rules in the books have little to do with how things are really done. “Mock trial” is to trial as ballroom dancing is to gladiatorial combat.

Criminal defense law involves helping people through the absolute worst times in their lives. Base every decision on what will help them most.

The following is your employment contract:

In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the State and district wherein the crime shall have been committed, which district shall have been previously ascertained by law, and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have the Assistance of Counsel for his defence.

Honor it.


0 responses to “Advice to a Young Criminal Trial Lawyer”

  1. Your blogs are great! A couple of us young public defenders have spent the better part of this morning taking turns reading them aloud in my office. I have a pair of kiddie sex assault trials on Monday and Thursday of next week and your blog on Voir Dires has opened my eyes to a couple of mistakes that I’ve been making in my past couple of trials. A blog spot like yours really helps us young defense pups, reading your blogs I’ve found answers to questions that I didn’t even know I should have been asking my more experienced colleagues. Thanks for that.

    Jesse Hernandez
    Assistant Webb County Public Defender

  2. Mark,

    Hi, I am a young and recently licensed attorney here in Houston. I decided to hang out my own shingle and focus my practice primarily in criminal defense work. I just wanted to say that your blog has been such a wonderful and reliable resource for myself. Your advice is priceless, especially for young lawyers like myself that have just started out. I would love the opportunity to observe one of your trials. Just wanted to say thank you for all your advice and for the passion that you bring to criminal defense law.

    J. Cole Brooks
    Attorney & Counselor At Law

  3. Thanks for the invite to the HCCLA. I will be sending in my application as soon as I can a member of HCCLA as a reference. I have actually seen you quite a few times there in the Harris County Criminal Justice Center. Although, I just now recognized you with your facial hair after observing your videos on your website. Thank you again.

  4. Looks like uniformly great advice!

    “Avoid making predictions about what the board of pardons and paroles will do.”

    Is there EVER a good time to do this? Nobody really knows how this stuff works except for TDCJ and a (very) few specialists. I would avoid speculation about prison time at all costs beyond what percentage of the sentence you’ll have to do before you’re ELIGIBLE for consideration for “discretionary” mandatory and parole. And while I’m at it, get to know what kind of impact a 3g offense/deadly weapon finding can have in the long run. It matters.

  5. I read through this and found it to be very accurate. While I’ve been licensed since 2002, I’m a firm believer in learning from others. I’ve done the prosecutor thing, the cop thing, and finally, I found my niche and opened my own office. I would not give it up for anything. I love what I’m doing. I just wish more cases would go to trial… it seems most clients just don’t want to take the risk, and I fully understand and respect that.

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