In Waaaayyyyyyy Over His Head

Today the lawyer I described in this post called me (it’s been a little over four weeks, by the way). He wanted to know why his client (my former client) had been detained. I probably should have made like Matlock and flipped him off. But instead, I explained to him the presumption of detention in a federal drug conspiracy case with a possible sentence over ten years. I also explained that the particular magistrate who heard the detention hearing will most likely never grant an accused release over the Government’s objection. Why I had to educate was beyond me; he is the one who made the client promises that nobody could possibly keep, and now he’s talking like I somehow dropped the ball.

The particular job this lawyer is planning to do — racing to the U.S. attorney’s office to cooperate — doesn’t require any legal talent or training whatsoever. But don’t you think that a lawyer who undertakes the representation of a serious drug conspiracy case should actually have a passing familiarity with the law? What happens when cooperation breaks down and the client needs a jury trial? What happens when the government doesn’t move for a 5K1 and the client needs a sentencing fight?

Last year the Southern District of Texas judges instituted new standards for CJA (Criminal Justice Act) lawyers (court-appointed lawyers). Everyone who wanted to be on the CJA panel had to apply; here is the list of the 92 lawyers who made the cut. A modicum of experience was required, and some degree of proven competency.
Hired lawyers, however, do not have to have any experience in federal court; they don’t have to know anything about federal criminal defense; they don’t, in fact, have to know anything about criminal defense at all.

Here’s my advice to state practitioners, or civil lawyers, or new lawyers, who think it it’s a good idea to take money to handle a federal case without lots of help at every step from an experienced federal criminal-defense lawyer: YOU’RE WRONG. DON’T DO IT.

0 responses to “In Waaaayyyyyyy Over His Head”

  1. You are absolutely right. Federal court is no place for a tyro. As a state public defender, I never have reason to go to federal court. But I have seen what happens to some of my clients who are charged in both federal and state court under dual soveriegnty (usually drug cases) when they have an attorney who is usually a denizen of state court.

    Which makes me wonder? Why would someone request a public defender in state court, but when he gets to federal court on what is essentially an identical charge, he hires an attorney who is only very rarely in federal court – or worse, hires a divorce attorney. (I have seen that happen)

  2. SC,

    Thanks for the comment. I think there’s a perception that federal trouble is more serious, and many people have serious trust issues with PDs.

    The truth is that the pool of private lawyers who will do as good a job as the federal PD is a very small one.

  3. How would you recommend that a new lawyer get started defending people in federal court? How did you get started?

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