A Day in the Work of a Criminal Defense Lawyer


I wake up and start getting costumed for first court appearance with new client (he’s accused of assaulting a cop). The telephone rings. A fellow criminal-defense lawyer and member of the Harris County Criminal Lawyers’ Association (of which I’m president-elect) has

shown up late for court and gotten himself jailed for contempt. I add him to my calendar, send an email to the association’s listserv, and print a copy of my “get out of jail free motion.” I load the motion into my briefcase, grab a bottle of water and head for court. Breakfast is a breakfast bar and water in the car on the way to court.

I see my new client in the courtroom and check in with the court coordinator. Bad news: according to pretrial services, my client has tested positive for cocaine twice since making bond — once right after his release, and the second time two weeks later (a week before court). Cocaine generally shows up in urine for two to three days after use, so the judge is going to think the accused has used cocaine while on bond. That’s not good. I explain to the client that he’s going to be taken into custody when he answers the docket, and why, and tell him to sit tight. Then I go across the hall to the court where the lawyer is being held. Two other HCCLA officers saw my listserv message and beat me to court; the judge has already set a personal bond for the lawyer. I check with the clerk (working on the paperwork), check in with the lawyer (contentedly working sudoku puzzles in the holdover), and go back across the hall.

My client has, as expected, been taken into custody. I talk with him privately; he doesn’t understand how he could have tested positive the second time. He offers to give another sample. Thinking that might be a good idea, I talk with the judge — she’s a retired judge, sitting in this court because the regular judge is on vacation. I ask her to have my client retested. She doesn’t know if that can be done. I talk to the court coordinator. He says that the only way it can be done is if the judge reinstates my client’s bond and sends him downstairs to pretrial services to give a sample. Judge says no dice. I tell my client.

I have other things I was planning to do in the courthouse this morning, but I plan to go down to pretrial services on the 12th floor first to try to talk to his pretrial officer (and see if she’ll concede that the test results could be in error) and then work my way back up to the 19th floor. The pretrial officer isn’t in yet. I have motions to file in a murder case, so I go to that court on the 14th floor and file the motions, then up to the 18th to drop in on a prosecutor who’s prosecuting another of my clients for intoxicated assault. He is in trial, but they are in recess; he takes a moment to tell me that he will no longer be handling my client’s case.

One of the court staff tells me that the prosecutor who will be handling my client’s case is in a misdemeanor court today. So I head back downstairs to the 11th floor. She’s not there. Back up to 19. The release papers for the lawyer are ready. I get the judge to sign, get the lawyer to sign, give the papers to the clerk, get the bailiff to confirm with the judge that the lawyer is free to go. Then back across the hall to help my client with the dirty pee. This court is in trial; the judge is reading the jury its instructions on a murder case.

I slip back into the back hallway to talk to the court coordinator; he proposes that we reset my client’s case till next week — Tuesday is the earliest opening — so that I can talk to the elected judge of that court. Very well, if that’s what I need to do. I sidle through the courtroom to the holdover cell, and explain to the client that he’s going to be spending the weekend in jail before we can try to get the elected judge to let him out. He asks me to try one more time with the visiting judge. It’s getting to be 11 a.m. and I should be hitting the road to get to my afternoon appearance in federal court in Beaumont (90+ miles down the freeway), but I promise to try.

By now the lawyers have begun their arguments in the murder case. I sit and half-listen to the lackluster arguments while hacking on my laptop (what did I ever do before wireless broadband?). As noon approaches, I start to get nervous about making it to Beaumont on time — I have no idea how long the drive will take in the rain. The arguments wrap up, and the judge sends the jury out and then leaves the bench. Erp. I head for the back hallway and catch the judge before she goes to lunch. She’s talking to an intern from the DA’s office and the court coordinator.

“When you hire a lawyer,” she observes, “you want him to keep trying and trying and trying. I think that’s what Mr. Bennett is about to do.” I explain my client’s situation — that he has a good job, and two kids he supports. She decides that the right thing to do is to let him back out for the weekend, but get him back in court on Monday for the elected judge to decide what to do with him. Eminently fair.

I can’t give my client the good news because he has already been sent to the jail, but on my way to the car (schlepping my jailed client’s belongings) I call his girlfriend so that she can pass the news on to him. Then I hit the road.

In the car I catch up on telephone calls that I missed while waiting in court. The drive to the Beaumont federal courthouse, for future reference, takes about 80 minutes in rain and heavy traffic. I make contact with the prosecutor; this would be his first detention hearing, but he is willing to waive detention (for my client indicted for possessing a kilo of cocaine and a gun, so that there is a presumption against release) if the federal pretrial officer thinks that release is appropriate. She does; we wait for the judge, who arraigns my client (not guilty, your honor) and sets the conditions of release proposed by the pretrial officer.

Then it’s a quick late lunch at McDonalds (check emails and return calls) and back in the car to Houston. More calls in the car (forget wireless broadband; what did I do before cellphones?). The drive back goes faster than the drive out. Back at the office to read the physical mail, hand over my still-temporarily-jailed client’s belongings, process my inbox, and prepare for the next day’s court appearances.

It sure beats working for a living.


0 responses to “A Day in the Work of a Criminal Defense Lawyer”

  1. I love it. Thanks for sharing, Mark. This is my favorite part:

    “When you hire a lawyer,” she observes, “you want him to keep trying and trying and trying. I think that’s what Mr. Bennett is about to do.”

    Well done!

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