GPSOLO July/August 2007
No area of practice has a greater effect on the lives of individuals than the area of criminal law. Whereas other clients entrust you with their homes, health, or money, criminal defense clients put their freedom or even their lives into your hands.
With so much power comes incredible responsibility. When we graduate from law school, many of us are willing to take any type of case with the belief that we can learn that area of the law as the matter proceeds. Others may handle a criminal case only once every few years and feel that they still remember enough to help the client. Both of these viewpoints can create real dangers for your clients as they attempt to seek justice in a system that is heavily weighted in favor of the prosecution.
A lawyer should recognize that the practice of criminal law is an area that has its own rules and precedents. There are particular time requirements, rules of procedure, and notice requirements that must be followed closely by both the defense and the prosecution. Lacking a strong working knowledge of these rules could put your client at risk to dangers that might easily be avoided by a more seasoned practitioner.
But you want to become one of these seasoned practitioners. How do you get that experience without diving in and getting your feet wet? The answer is that you ask for help. Any criminal practitioner worth his salt would be pleased to have a young lawyer volunteer to help with a couple of cases. If you volunteer to work with several different lawyers, you get to see their styles, what motions should be filed, what type of recommendations from the prosecutors are good, and what cases need to be tried.
In the trial of capital cases, many states require the lead counsel to have experience in trying death penalty cases. The second-chair attorney has fewer requirements. That is so the second chair can learn from the first chair and become a first chair in the future. This process should be applied to all criminal cases.
Criminal law changes very quickly. Not only does the legislature seek to find ways to make it more difficult for the defendant, but the U.S. Supreme Court keeps most criminal defense lawyers scrambling to stay abreast of its decisions. Someone who has not practiced criminal law for several years will find that they could be more harmful to their client than a student right out of law school.
Years ago I was appointed to defend my first capital murder case. This was long before there were experience requirements for the first-chair attorney. Knowing the responsibility of such an appointment, I immediately went to several multi-day seminars across the country that focused on capital defense. I wrote to indigent defense groups in every state to get any materials they had at their disposal. I gathered all the capital murder motions I could find to see what types of motions I should file. Even with all of that, I still felt that I was an accident waiting to happen. Although the case ended successfully, I still wished I could have had more comfort in what I was doing.
The responsibility to represent someone charged with a crime should not be taken lightly. Think about investing the time necessary to learn from those who already know the possible mistakes. Your clients will feel much better when all is finished if they had one of the best-prepared lawyers representing them. You.
Brian T. Hermanson practices criminal law as a solo in Ponca City, Oklahoma, and was the recipient of the GP|Solo Division’s Solo of the Year Award in 2005. For five years he put aside his practice to represent Terry Nichols, alleged co-conspirator in the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing; under Hermanson’s defense, Nichols avoided the death penalty. Brian Hermanson may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.