Straight Into Solo

New York criminal-defense lawyer Scott Greenfield really doesn’t like the idea, but prescribes two options for “when there’s no other choice.”

Virginia prosecutor (and former criminal-defense lawyer) Ken Lammers did it himself, and offers “option C: nose to the grindstone.”

Miami criminal-defense lawyer Brian Tannebaum, who got himself a fancy-pants PD gig out of law school, calls it a “dumb ass idea” (while somehow managing not to link to either Scott’s or Ken’s post).

Chandler, Arizona criminal-defense lawyer Matt Brown says that “going straight into solo practice can provide as much training and supervision as a more traditional career path.”

And South Carolina criminal-defense lawyer Bobby Frederick says that everybody else is right.

We criminal-defense lawyers have an obligation not only to provide
effective representation to our own clients, but also to ensure that
there will be effective representation for future generations of
clients. If new lawyers who should be criminal-defense lawyers aren’t
starting their own practices, they’ll be going to work doing something
other than criminal law (a flat-out waste of time), getting jobs working as
criminal-defense lawyers (few jobs, and far between), or getting jobs as prosecutors.

Do we want virtually all of the next generation of criminal-defense lawyers to be people who have grown up in DAs’ offices, learning to think and try cases like prosecutors? I think the answer is “Hell, no!” If I’m right, then experienced criminal-defense lawyers should be encouraging young lawyers to start their criminal defense practices out of law school and helping them be better lawyers by offering them Scott’s Options A (connect with an experienced, competent criminal-defense lawyer) or B (find yourself a mentor).

I don’t know about Miami or New York, but in Houston there is a gap in representation. People who are indigent and can’t make bail get appointed counsel (of varying, though in the main acceptable, competence). People who have lots of money can carefully select from a  wide variety of lawyers to find the one they trust best. People who make bail but don’t have a lot of expendable income (I have called them the working poor), however, are stuck. Most Harris County judges will not appoint counsel to someone who makes bail, or will do so only reluctantly, so the working poor are pressured to hire low-bid lawyers.

There are, broadly, two types of lawyers charging low rates for representation in criminal cases. On the one hand there are lawyers who have been practicing for a long time and have built up a volume plea practice, copping each client out as expeditiously as possible. On the other there are lawyers who are young and hungry and willing to discount their aspirational fees to build up their practices.

This is the niche in which the newly-minted criminal-defense lawyer on her own can do the most good: representing zealously those who would otherwise hire a quick-plea specialist.

Scott notes, correctly, that competence in representing the accused takes at least three (and more likely 10) years to attain. But here’s the thing: the new lawyer taking a case for $500 doesn’t have to be as competent as the ten-year lawyer. She just has to be more competent than the other lawyers taking cases for $500.

(She also has to be willing to work for minimum wage or less on some cases, have the humility to recognize that she is out of her depth, and follow Scott’s Option A or Option B as well as Ken’s Option C (work hard, work smart, be frugal).)


0 responses to “Straight Into Solo”

  1. There is a third group of us who actually have far more experience than you and who decide to charge according to what the person can afford to pay and who constantly give people breaks on price and actually will do some work pro bono because we aren’t willing to let some poor person get screwed over because they can’t afford your prices. I personally have a 20% dismissal rate on cases, so I am not exactly a plead out artist. I don’t do court appointments at all and I don’t bother to advertise because I can barely keep up with the referral cases, but I used to advertise and it was a point of honor with me to see how good a result I could get for a client no matter how much the person paid, and it still is. Bottom line, if a lawyer does good work, clients will show up. Please quit placing us all in your little categories. I am nothing like a plead out artist and I am nothing like you, either.

    • A criminal defense lawyer is never afraid to put his name on his opinions. I have no idea who you are, except that you’re an anonymous coward (which makes you presumptively dishonest, and nothing like me) so I can’t respond to much of what you say, but I can say that you have no idea how I practice law.

      I help whomever I can for whatever they can afford, but if I took all — or even most — of the pro bono or low bono cases that came to me I would have to take a lot more cases to take care of my family (“barely able to keep up”), and I wouldn’t be able to dedicate the time I do to each case, to every client’s ultimate detriment.

      • Wind. Dancer, why so defensive? One who denies an allegation even before one has been specifically lodged sure smacks of PROJECTION. No one but YOU put yourself in the negative category. If the shoe doesn’t fit why comment? Sounds to me like you are a very arrogant, narcissist, insecure sack dragger who probably has engaged in the very conduct you are so defensive about. Grow Up! “My daddy can beat up your daddy…..

  2. I think you’re leting the judges who won’t appoint counsel to indigent bail defendants off too easily. These judges are violating the law, whether they straight out deny an application based on bond status (CCP 26.04(m)) or hold applications for counsel while repeatedly resetting cases in order to pressure defendants to hire lawyers (CCP 1.051). A defendant who can only afford a $100 fee for a lawyer who will do no more than lend false legitimacy to a guilty plea is indigent in 6th Am terms. We get calls from Harris County bail defendants who don’t even have that much money but still can’t get a court-appointed lawyer. Court staff often won’t even give them an application for counsel. I know it’s bad for business (at least that part of the business that depends on low-fee pleas) but I wish there was more outrage from the defense bar on this issue. I know HCCLA made some efforts in this area before, but this post just seems to accept that bad status quo.

  3. I’ll use my real name when I grow a backbone. I admit that I am a cowardly, craven, envious little person, presumptively a liar, who thinks that a 20% dismissal rate is impressive when in fact that’s about the margin of filing error in the DA’s Office.

    I’m sure that if I try real hard I can think of some rationalization for your dismissal rate being closer to 40% than my measly 20%, but I’m barely able to keep up with all of these referrals who hire me because I’m cheap, so I don’t have time to make up excuses for my shortfall in that area.

    [Edited for content and clarity, per the terms of service related to anonymous commenters. MB]

  4. My comments here are meant to be in the spirit of truth, exposure and Justice. Allegations of indigent defense injustices and overbearing judges are not new to Harris County (Houston). The rules that govern Judicial Conduct certainly prohibit all the actions mentioned herein. They also provide a venue to file a grievance and keep filing grievances “until the cows come home”. These rules also provide that a judge may NEVER comment in any way regarding any possible pending complaint that has or may be filed – if known. On the flip side there are about 40 criminal judges in Houston and it certainly isn’t fair to them all for a few to continue (whomever they may be) conduct court indigent business in the manner stated. Bottom Line: Let the sun shine in and start naming names! No good judge worth their salt would ever OBJECT to this crap being exposed. Frankly, until someone (even cryptically) starts getting specific with the offenders, it borders on wining – no disrespect to anyone here. I’m just tired of hearing GENERAL JUDICIAL INDICTMENTS. Instead, how about getting specific and going after the SPECIFIC onerous ones who are oppressive in SPECIFIC terms without lumping all together. Then, follow them all the way to the grave. Never give up, never give up, never give up, because, lawyers, judges, defendants and the victims who enter the CJC will be better off with these specific offenders exposed!

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