Criminal Justice Section
Criminal Justice Magazine
Volume 17 Issue 4
From Park Avenue to Fifth Street The Making of a Solo Practitioner
By A. Eduardo Balarezo
A. Eduardo Balarezo is a solo criminal law practitioner in Washington, D.C.
O ne summer day in 1991, I disembarked from an Amtrak train at Washington, D.C.’s Union Station. I had just returned from Baltimore, where my mother was about to undergo surgery for which I had donated blood. As I walked to the local subway train, a stranger stopped me and asked to speak to me. Not knowing the man, I ignored him and kept walking. Within seconds, I was against a wall and the police were searching me in front of dozens of onlookers on the train platform. Apparently, I fit the police’s profile of a drug courier: young, Latino, and holding a one-way ticket. When the search proved fruitless, I was let go without so much as an apology. I vowed that day never to let that happen to me again, and I began considering law school.
I applied to Howard University School of Law in part because of its strong tradition in civil rights. At Howard I did all the right things for all the wrong reasons. I made law review and moot court. I graduated with honors and got that great job with a major New York law firm on Park Avenue. Life was good. I put my education to good use reviewing documents in a warehouse, cite-checking memoranda that no one ever read, and generally feeling like anything but a lawyer.
Seeking some excitement, I contacted a friend at the Legal Aid Society who referred me to its pro bono office. Within a week, that office assigned me a criminal appeal. Soon after jumping into that case, I argued the appeal before a five-judge panel of the appellate division. Being grilled for 30 minutes about why my client’s conviction should be reversed was the most exhilarating experience I had had up to that time.
After two years, I packed my belongings and headed back to D.C., thinking things might be a little different there. I joined another major law firm on Pennsylvania Avenue, two blocks from the White House. How exciting. Practicing law in the nation’s capital, what more could I want? No longer confined to document reviews, I now had the awesome responsibility of litigating what "#1 doctor recommended" baby formula meant. The more things changed, the more they stayed the same.
After four years as a "corporate litigator," licensed in New York, Maryland, and D.C., I had been in a courtroom exactly once—arguing that criminal appeal in New York.
The decision to leave the big-firm life was relatively easy. How to make a living was a little more difficult. Beginning a solo practice was one of the most challenging, difficult, and fulfilling things I have ever done. Fortunately, a law school friend with his own solo practice initially showed me the ropes. Although I think that my transition to solo practice was made smoother by the help I received, I still experienced the same hurdles—and more—common to all solos.
What type of practice?
Deciding what type of law to practice was one of the first decisions I made prior to setting up shop. The answer to this question would impact such logistical issues as whether to have an office, where to locate the office, and even how to get clients. Having just left a career as a civil litigator, and knowing that I did not enjoy that type of work, I decided to go back to my first legal love—criminal defense. That decision was confirmed when I ran across an article in the newspaper, which I still carry in my wallet, about a man who had been wrongly convicted of murder and who had spent four years on death row. His conviction was reversed and he was released without so much as an apology. I thought back to my own " Terry" stop at the train station.
Hanging out a shingle
Having decided that I wanted to practice criminal law, I needed an office. Originally, I had thought about working from home, but I did not really want "defendants" hanging out in my living room. Luckily for me, my law school friend had office space available to share that was two blocks from the courthouse. These two things—an office and its location—were very important to me. I needed a convenient location so I would not have to waste time traveling back and forth to the courthouse. I also needed an office to meet with clients and to project a "professional" image.
In D.C., the area around the courthouse used to be seedy and rundown. Fifth Street was the old center of gravity for solo criminal defenders. Now, with gentrification, that area is one of the hottest real estate markets in the city, with sky-high rents to prove it. One way to afford an office is to share space with other attorneys. However, because you also have to deal with other personalities and work habits, you should choose your office mates wisely. Alternatively, you can rent space in a "virtual office" where, for a minimal monthly fee, someone will answer your calls and collect your mail. Other available services include faxing, copying, and reserved office and conference space. The shared aspect is invisible to clients, and a starting solo can project the image of a larger office. The price for a virtual office varies depending on the level of services desired, but it is usually reasonable.
Something else to consider when setting up an office is, of course, having the proper equipment. A telephone, computer, printer, and fax are a must. Because these get used heavily, I suggest getting the best equipment you can afford rather than cutting corners. Most computers come with word processing software that is easy to use and organize and is more than sufficient for drafting motions and letters. Additionally, CD burners are also common, and I have found that backing up files to a CD is an inexpensive and compact way to preserve my records.
I purchased a relatively inexpensive, multipurpose machine that prints, copies, and scans. Other models also have integrated fax features. I suggest a laser printer rather than an ink jet printer. The laser printer is usually faster and creates much clearer documents. I feel that if I am going to sign my name to a filing, it must not only be well written, but also look professional.
There are some well-known legal software applications geared towards small offices or solos. However, these are often expensive and sometimes are difficult to use. Most computers also come with basic database and spreadsheet programs that can be used to keep track of clients, invoices, and payments and to store commonly used documents. With a little practice using the software and an initial investment of time, you can avoid having to reinvent the wheel every time you prepare a routine document.
At first I did not have a secretary to answer my calls or to let me know when I have a message waiting. So, I got the next best thing. I purchased a good quality telephone with an answering machine and a nifty feature that paged my cell phone whenever a message was left on the machine. I was notified when I had a message and could call in to check the message and return the call almost immediately. And speaking of cell phones, it’s an essential. Although I am out of the office quite often, I am always in contact with my office and clients.
A solo attorney simply must have Internet access and e-mail. There are many websites available that have free legal information, including federal and state codes, case law, and other useful material. To make searching the Web effective, I suggest a high-speed connection such as DSL or cable. Otherwise, you’ll spend half of your time waiting for websites to load. E-mail is an easy and efficient way to contact clients and other lawyers.
A solo should also have basic legal references at hand. An up-to-date copy of the local code, rules, and material pertinent to your particular practice are mandatory. Although this information is often on the Web, it is sometimes much easier to grab a book off the shelf than it is to log on and read material online. I have also created binders for each type of case I have handled. For example, when I handled my first drug case, I put case law, articles, jury instructions, and other related materials in one labeled binder. Now, whenever I have another drug case, all of the information is in one convenient place. In two short years, I have obtained an impressive little legal library.
For a solo practice, efficient time and case management are essential. I have found that maintaining my calendar on my computer is a great way to keep track of court dates and appointments. I use a common e-mail program that includes a calendar feature. This feature allows me to edit and add appointments and to set reminders of important dates and tasks. To avoid the possibility of schedule conflicts, I purchased a personal digital assistant (PDA) that allows me to synchronize the calendar on my office computer with my home computer. Additionally, I can carry the PDA with me in court and enter any new dates immediately. A good, basic, quality PDA sells for about $100.
Simple practices such as developing a filing system are also helpful. For example, I maintain separate file cabinets for my civil and criminal cases and then subdivide those between open and closed files. This sounds simple, but you would be surprised at some of the filing systems I have seen used. Storage of old files is also a necessary evil. In order to know what is in the boxes, I keep a list of each case in the box and send the box to storage. I keep the list in my office for easy reference in case I need to retrieve the file.
Although my practice is now almost exclusively criminal, I do maintain malpractice insurance. The peace of mind it affords me is worth the yearly premium.
Getting busy and getting business
Once I had my very own law office, I needed clients to pay for it. My first stop was the Criminal Justice Act (CJA) office at Superior Court. Under the CJA, the court appoints attorneys from a preselected panel to represent indigent defendants. The representation of these defendants extends from arraignment through trial. After being accepted as a CJA attorney, I began representing traffic and misdemeanor defendants. Soon I was handling felonies and appearing in court every day.
Attorneys do not live by CJA alone. During my start-up period, anyone and everyone was a potential client. Friends and family referred people with legal problems, and I saw them all: prisoners with complaints against guards, people who wanted to sue the CIA for implanting surveillance devices in their heads, and people who did no work and were angry because they were fired from the job. I soon learned to recognize the viable cases where I could do something for a client and make a living at the same time. One of the hardest things for me to do was to tell some of these would-be clients that I could not take their cases. Being able to separate the wheat from the chaff will save you time and headaches down the road.
At first, I considered a mixed civil-criminal practice. I took personal injury, employment, and bankruptcy cases. I was becoming a general practice office—and overextended. I realized I needed to focus on one or two areas that I enjoyed. Having to handle a varied practice by myself was too time-consuming, and I found myself trying to learn too many things at once. I felt that my time and energy would best be spent focusing on criminal defense.
Any self-respecting criminal defense attorney gets the retainer fee up front. I learned that lesson the hard way: I took half of a fee up front and never saw the rest, even after my client’s case ended favorably. Being new to the CJA practice, I had also overlooked the fact that court-appointed cases do not pay until after the case is complete. Would-be solos should also consider having sufficient savings to tide them over during the start-up period. Fortunately, I had a little nest egg when I left the firm. Unfortunately, I did not receive my first CJA payment until six months after I took my first case. The little nest egg was fried.
At first, I felt that by taking court-appointed cases I had lost prestige and status. Having worked for two major law firms, I was used to an expense account, prominent clients, and endless support at my beck and call. However, when I realized the importance of my work to each individual I represented, those feelings vanished. Also, knowing that I only had to answer to my clients and to myself gave me an incredible sense of fulfillment that I never experienced in a large firm.
Getting your name out there
When I set up shop, I looked into advertising as a means of getting clients. However, advertising was expensive and could be hit or miss. I wondered what would make someone pick my ad over another lawyer’s. So, I passed on the ads and the tasteless commercials. What worked for me was getting good results for my criminal clients. Those happy clients referred me to their friends and families, and soon more clients were in my office.
Although I would not recommend the following method of getting your name known, it did work for me. I got arrested. Shortly after starting my solo practice, I represented a client who was charged with several felonies, including rape, in a
domestic violence case. During the course of my investigation, my investigator and I tried to interview the complaining witness. Although we were initially allowed into her apartment, she changed her mind when she realized we represented the defendant. She told us to leave, and we did. She also called the police and alleged that we had broken into her apartment. When the police arrived, we were briefly detained and then released. Lo and behold, the local prosecutor’s office decided that a proper exercise of prosecutorial discretion was to obtain an arrest warrant against me and charge me with unlawful entry. To add insult to injury, I was arrested in the courthouse and paraded out in handcuffs. Additionally, the detective on the case conveniently "forgot" to leave my paperwork at the station so that my processing was delayed. I was held overnight as a result. When my case was called for arraignment and the clerk said "United States versus Eduardo Balarezo," I had a crystal clear understanding of the awesome power at the government’s disposal. If I—a member of the bar and an officer of the court—could be arrested on such baseless allegations, I could now understand and believe the stories told by some of my clients about governmental abuses. (Note: In the District of Columbia, the U.S. attorney prosecutes most of what in other jurisdictions are considered local crimes.)
The local defense bar was up in arms, and many offered their assistance. In addition, a well-known partner at one of my former firms came to my defense and, after much litigation, my case was dismissed with prejudice and my record sealed. The government also subsequently dropped all charges against my client. In the end, becoming the poster boy for prosecutorial overreaching benefited my practice. I met other attorneys willing to help and was also exposed to the unseen workings of the system. My mug shot now hangs in my office.
For solos, there are many opportunities to network and to meet possible sources of new business. For example, most local bar associations have committees focused on solo practitioners that provide excellent information about new products and services and offer the opportunity to meet other solos. In D.C., there is a local superior court lawyers’ association and a local chapter of a national criminal defenders’ group. A local public defender service or legal aid society can also be a tremendous resource for solos.
Maintaining a practice
As the term "solo" implies, the practice can be lonely. One of the most terrifying things about starting my own practice was sitting in my office by myself wondering how to handle a new case. Fortunately, I have become friends with another Howard alumnus who has been practicing for many years and who has become my mentor. Having a mentor allows me to ask questions without worrying about sounding stupid, to brainstorm with someone else, and to handle more difficult cases. Within 18 months of starting my own defense practice, I second-chaired a murder case and now routinely handle serious felony cases, thanks to the support and encouragement of my mentor. A mentor can also be a good source of referrals.
Developing a network of trusted attorneys who can stand in for you is also important. As a solo, life often intrudes and you cannot be in two places at once. Unlike at a firm, there is no army of lawyers to take your place. Although I try to keep it to a minimum, having someone reliable to stand in for me in court is a great help.
I think that good "customer service" and professionalism have helped me to maintain and grow my practice. Early in my CJA practice, I noticed that some clients considered "paid lawyers" to be more desirable than appointed lawyers. There seems to be a general impression among these clients that a court-appointed lawyer would not be as aggressive or as zealous as a retained lawyer. I disagreed with this perception because I know that the overwhelming majority of the CJA lawyers are excellent attorneys who truly believe in what they do. I also learned that some clients believed that lawyers took CJA cases because they could not get other work. Again, this perception could not be further from the truth. As my own situation demonstrates, I made the conscious choice to leave a large firm practice to establish my own office.
I have, however, noticed that some attorneys just do not pay attention to their personal appearance. They do not dress appropriately for court and generally look sloppy. Even if their skills are first-rate, those abilities can be seemingly diminished in a client’s eyes, and more importantly in a jury’s, by their careless appearance. Dressing appropriately makes me feel more confident, and I know that confidence is apparent to my clients. I have never had an appointed client leave me for a "paid lawyer."
Above all, I recommend solos follow old-fashioned common sense and good manners. I always try to return my calls the same day I get them, and I am punctual for my court appearances. I am also courteous to courthouse staff, especially the courtroom clerks. They have the power to call your case quickly or to keep you waiting all day.
In developing and maintaining my practice, there has been a lot of trial and error (no pun intended) and a lot of on-the-job training. Even now, I learn something new almost every day. Criminal defenders are an aggressive and confident lot. However, we must always be open to learning new things and to bettering our practices and ourselves.