The Trials of Being a Private Criminal Defense Attorney


I am a private criminal defense lawyer in a big city. Seems like a simple enough statement, right?  But it’s actually fraught with meaning.  For instance, the word “private” in front of the phrase “defense attorney”.  If you tell people you do criminal defense, you get one of two reactions.  Either the recipient of your proud statement picks up a cross and starts hurling garlic at you, or they say, “oooh, good for you.  What county do you work for?”.

Because public defenders are heroes.  They get the difficult cases, they get paid peanuts, and their caseload is insane.  If you know a public defender and you don’t bring them cookies and beer every now and again, you should probably re-evaluate your priorities.

Unfortunately, I don’t get to bask in the admiration, that single dubious advantage offered to public defenders, because of the word “private”.  That’s right.  I defend alleged criminals for money. Today we’re going to discuss what that actually means.

1. I am an employee of a firm with a salary.

I make roughly the same amount as several friends who are public defenders.

My single “benefit”; I get 39 cents per mile.  For reference, the federal standard is $0.55.

I buy my own insurance.

I spend between two and five hours every day driving between courts.

2. My student loans will never  be forgiven.

Like the $400 haircut that turns out looking like a mullet, flesh colored leggings, and the cancellation of Firefly, some things are unforgivable. Public defenders will have their loans, along with the interest, forgiven after ten years of thankless work. Mine will never be forgiven. Until my last dying breath, the federal government will be standing over me, a giant Uncle Sam laughing maniacally and pulling my strings to keep me from representing clients who don’t have cash in advance.

3. My Clients Believe Paid Attorneys are Wizards That Control Their Case, Life, the Universe, and Everything.

Because my clients are paying the firm, they believe that they have exclusive rights to my person 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

Our clients also think that I’m magic, and  get really mad when I can’t wave my hands and make their case go away. Their basis for these expectations is based on the fee amount they are supposed to be paying; it is almost never fully paid.  One of the more exciting parts of my job is convincing clients to make payments, then picking up money from clients at court appearances, usually in a brown paper bag reaking of marijuana and poor decisions, and getting it back to the office without getting mugged.

4. My Clients’ Decisions Rarely Hinge on the Actual Strength of Their Case

Many of my clients who are not guilty elect to take a plea deal anyway, because trials cost more.  Many of my clients who are guilty as hell go to trial because they hire counsel, but then don’t actually want to hear any. (I believe this particular phenomenon exists in civil practice also.)

5. I Am Everywhere

The P.D. gets familiar with one courthouse, a few judges, and one jail.  I cover an average of 10 counties on a regular basis.  I have a chart on Google Docs reminding me which courthouses have free parking, which jails will take away my phone or my umbrellla, and what courts don’t actually start until two hours after they say they start.  I also keep track of judge idiosyncrasies – who hates pantsuits, who skips lunch, who thinks an ounce of marijuana is ten times worse than a battery, etc.  I subsist primarily on bottled water, granola bars, and sugarfree gum, and I know all the regular areas where the cops hang out on the interstate.  My dry-cleaning bill rivals my gas bill, and high-heels are a forgotten dream.

6. I Am Completely Paranoid.  All the Time.

It’s ironic that I spend so much time driving, because now I fully understand something about the other drivers on the road.  So many of the drivers we all naively trust to follow the road rules that keep us all alive are actually high, drunk, screwing, or all of the above while carrying several guns, a few kilos of coke, and a couple of pounds of weed (all for personal use, of course) while I’m blithely passing them on the left. And that’s just traffic.  Crazy/scary/dumb people are doing scary things All. The. Time. Everywhere.  And unlike the Public Defender, my office is not in the same building as the Sheriff’s headquarters.


So what am I trying to say?  Be nice to your neighborhood private defense attorneys.  I guarantee you that our employers took very careful note of the market when we were job hunting, and made their offers accordingly.  Not every criminal is eligible for the public defender, and if we weren’t around, the courts would be clogged with idiots spouting bad Latin and asserting constitutional rights that are neither right nor constitutional.

That’s right, court would be be just like Facebook, but it would cost tax payers money.

So after you send cookies to your friend the P.D., save a beer for me.

(image: money to American dollars via SHUTTERSTOCK)

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