A Job for Fools (and Other Humans)


When I was 25, I was a fool.

In this I am far from alone—most, if not all, 25-year-olds who went directly from high school to college to law school are fools. Wisdom requires understanding, and understanding (as opposed to knowledge) comes only from experience of a type not provided by formal education.

Fortunately for the 25-year-old me, wisdom is not a prerequisite for my then-and-now-chosen job.

It’s not that wisdom is not helpful to a criminal-defense lawyer—to the contrary, it’s important from first interview to final verdict and beyond: the more understanding a criminal-defense lawyer has of the way the world—and more specifically the human heart—works, the better job he’ll do for his clients. Barring any serious accidents, I’ll be a better lawyer in 2024 than in 2009, because I’ll have 15 more years of life experience digested. I may even, at age 54, look back on my 39-year-old self as a fool.

Better to have a wise lawyer than a fool advising you to plead guilty or try your case, picking your jury, and cross-examining the witnesses against you. But a criminal-defense lawyer can perform the fundamentals of his job without wisdom. I know one lawyer—now a great lawyer—who when young tried a string of murder trials by reading all he could about Gerry Spence and doing what Gerry did. (Frighteningly, he won.)

The job can technically be done without wisdom because the job description doesn’t include judging. Bring us your factually guilty, your scummy, your sleazy, your downright evil yearning to remain free: we’ll defend them all—that’s what the contract says.

If it were otherwise, if at 25 years of age, we had to decide who deserved a defense, if we were responsible for deciding what justice was, the fact that we were not only mortals (and therefore fallible) but also (at 25) fools would cause us to destroy many lives. But we don’t have to worry about that, at least, because—whether foolish 25-year-olds or grizzled silverbacks—we’re not charged with the job of deciding what is just.

We can leave the foolish destroying of lives to our adversaries.

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0 responses to “A Job for Fools (and Other Humans)”

  1. Mark,

    When you say: ” We can leave the foolish destroying of lives to our adversaries.” I imagine you are speaking of prosecutors? If so, remember this: Like you – but on the other side – I began my legal career as one of those foolish inexperienced green #3 prosecutors whose inexperience and naivete aided many a green (& sage defense attorney alike) to gain more than their fair share of not guilty verdicts so you don’t want to look a gift horse in the mouth. No question – just like medicine – they call it the PRACTICE of Law for a reason – everyone has to begin somewhere.

    Lets just hope both sides of the bar AND the bench keep on learning and never forget the great responsibility and respect we owe to all court participants and the fragile lives that do more than occupy space in a courtroom. Defense Lawyers, Prosecutors & the Judiciary – regardless of experience – should never forget the Golden Rule when dealing with each other.

    Larry Standley

    • I’m confident that you were a fool at 25 too.

      In my practice, I look after the best interest of each client. Here, I can go a little farther afield and work on the system.

  2. Mr. Bennett,

    As a 29 year old law school student, and prior military, I appreciate the post. Although I am surely a fool to some extent, I can’t imagine going into such an important career without the understanding of people (and life) that I have now.

    Thanks for the post–it doesn’t make me feel so bad about being “old” in law school.

    William

  3. Thank you Mark for writing something that is truly from the heart.

    At 25, I was “defending my country” and a young, single, father of a four-year-old. My understanding of the world was very limited.

    At 43, I suppose that my understanding has changed quite a bit – I am not so quick to judge (or to believe), jaded maybe, but I still feel the fire of righteous indignation when I see an injustice (usually accompanied by some blue-uniformed misconduct). Then again, I am also a bit brighter and I do not don my shining armor (avec lance) and charge off to fight EVERY battle based solely upon the story offered by a prospective client (I now actually try to investigate a bit first LOL).

    I suppose that time and wisdom are connected. I am just saddened that there may not be enough time for me to become wise.

  4. I was a federal prosecutor at 25. I believe I was very briefly the youngest one in the country at that time (not counting Strom Thurmond’s son, who I believe was about 12 when he was named U.S. Attorney).

    It used to infuriate me that people thought that it was appalling that I wielded such power at such a young age.

    40 now, and on the other side. It doesn’t infuriate me any more.

  5. I disagree with the assertion that most 25 year old lawyers are fools. It seems to be based on the premise that one cannot acquire any meaningful ‘life experience’ if he has been in school most of his life. What about the experience of having a sibling or parent die? Or traveling to, and spending time in, countries that are far poorer than the United States? These are just two ways a 25 year old who has been in school can gain wisdom and perspective on life that many older lawyers, or people of any profession, lack.

    • Thank you for commenting.

      First, even if we exclude those who have lost siblings or parents, and those who have traveled to and spent time in third-world countries, it’s still safe to say that most 25-year-old lawyers are fools.

      Second, I lived for six years in India and Thailand before I was 17 years old. And yes, at 25, I was still a fool.

  6. I would think being a fool has some advantages. It may, for example, make it easier to speak to many Harris County judges on their own level.

    Many MBA programs won’t let a student in until they have some real-world experience. I’ve said for years that JD programs should establish the same rule.

  7. The post raises an interesting issue I see in the trenches on a daily basis. The prosecutors are generally fresh out of law school (as I was). I now look back and can see I was defensive when someone would say I wasn’t seasoned enough to make rational decisions about a case. I see this with the prosecutors I deal with now as a defense attorney. Prosecutors are young, inexperienced and take their jobs very seriously. But there are also lots of young prosecutors who are very rational and show great judgment.

    On the other hand, client’s can be benefit from the eager criminal defense attorney. There are too many older, beaten down lawyers out there, who think they know how the jury will react to the case because they have been practicing for “30 + years” and put their effort into convincing their clients to plead, sending them to prison, without putting the effort into winning a jury trial.

  8. I went to law school later in life as a second career. I was far too thin-skinned as a younger man to have survived in this profession. That’s the problem I see with the younger prosecutors. They seem to take everything so personally. There is still a young prosecutor in Philadelphia who, before I left the city, couldn’t bring herself to even look at me when she passed me in the hallway. And she won the case, too. I guess I made the mistake of actually cross-examining one of her witnesses.

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