Criminal Defense Attorney Job Description:
I represent people accused of crimes. These crimes range from driving under the influence (“DUI”), possession of illegal narcotics and domestic violence, to white-collar conspiracy, drug conspiracy and armed robbery.
My job consists of meeting clients who are either appointed to me by the court or who hire me privately. I make an assessment of their case and explain their options: either going to trial or taking a plea agreement. Unless a client is acquitted after a trial, I then assist them in obtaining the fairest possible sentence. Sometimes I will handle an appeal.
I am paid either by the client - in cases where I am privately retained - or by the state or federal government when I am appointed by the Court to represent someone.
On a day to day basis, I am either making an appearance in state or federal court, typically in the San Diego county area though sometimes in a place like Arizona, Los Angeles, or other California counties. Alternatively, I am visiting a client in jail (where most of them are) or meeting them in my office.
Less often, I talk to clients' families or prosecutors on the phone. Rarely, I am in trial or preparing for a trial, though when a trial happens, I am very, very busy with preparation.
How did you become a criminal defense attorney in California?
I majored in political science as an undergraduate. Somewhere along the line I abandoned the idea of being a journalist or novelist for the idea of being some kind of lawyer. I took the LSAT test and did well enough to be accepted to Hastings College of the Law (or “UC Hastings”), the oldest law school in California.
During law school, I clerked with California Indian Legal Services. I wanted to be a Legal Services attorney, but could not find gainful employment. I moved to San Diego, CA with my fiancée and was lucky enough to find work clerking on a complex white-collar fraud case in federal court.
For the first six months or so, that was the only case I had, but during the next two years I worked on several complex federal criminal cases as a research attorney, working underneath an appointed federal attorney either reviewing discovery, performing research or drafting motions.
After two years of working exclusively under federally appointed attorneys, I qualified for receiving court appointed misdemeanors in state court. All defendants in criminal cases are entitled to receive a free attorney. That attorney is usually a public defender, but in situations where the public defender has a conflict of interest, the County of San Diego administers a program that appoints qualified private attorneys to represent indigent defendants.
That program is called “private conflict council” or “PCC”. PCC cases don’t pay as well as private cases, but they are a great way to get trial experience in state court, and handle a variety of cases. My first PCC case was in October of 2004.
In July of 2005 I began handling felonies in state court. In November of 2006, I was appointed to the Criminal Justice Act panel, which assigns cases to private attorneys in federal court. It is very unusual for an attorney with no prior experience as a federal public defender or prosecuting attorney to be appointed to the CJA panel under any circumstances, let alone as a fifth year lawyer, so I felt honored.
Now that I have a steady roster of appointed clients, I am beginning to seek retained clients. Unlike the appointed cases, where you are guaranteed clients, the retained market is highly competitive and people spend lots of money advertising their services. So far, the only ad I have taken out is in the Nolo Press guide.
I wanted to do something with Nolo Press because I remembered them from growing up in the Bay Area (they sell “self-help” legal books for common programs). By far, the most retained cases are for DUIs - in San Diego - VACATION DUIs are a really big market (the DUI of someone who doesn’t live here).
As a San Diego criminal attorney, what advice do you have for those interested in pursuing this field?
Well the most obvious thing is to get a job as a state or federal public defender. Very few federal public defenders hire new lawyers, but San Diego is the exception to that rule. Most every city and county in the country has SOME kind of public defender entity that hires new lawyers.
Public defenders are not quite the turnover intensive position that most lay people imagine, but the fact is that public defenders typically move up or out - advance or leave, or move to another office, or become private practioners - rather then stay in the exact same job for 25 years.
If you want to get a job in a public defender office it’s best to focus in on one or two offices in particular, preferably EITHER where you are attending law school or your home town. There often exist delayed opportunities to get hired by the public defender that can require hanging around and not taking a full-time job for a year or two.
Big cities are best. If you can intern for the public defender you want to work for while still in law school, that can be a big plus. You can often move from a public defender’s office in a rapidly growing, less developed market to an office in a larger, more sophisticated area if you are willing to move out of town.
On the private side, try to find work clerking for attorneys who are preparing for trial on complex federal criminal cases. Often times, young attorneys will go to work for criminal defense "mills." While these jobs provide a paycheck, some status, and a steady flow of triable cases, the reputation damage can be lasting.
If you play your cards properly, you should be able to obtain appointed state misdemeanor cases within two to three years. Attorneys are eligible for federal appointed cases after five years of practice. Once you are getting appointed cases in state and federal court, you can move on to trying to get private, retained clients.
As far as attorney jobs in California and elsewhere, how is the outlook?
It’s always pretty “good” because crime is a constant. Criminal defense attorneys are almost totally immune from any competition except from new lawyers who come into the profession. In that way, we typically do “better” in times of stress to the legal professions (i.e. fewer lawyers coming out of school and becoming criminal defense attorneys).
The law that guarantees free attorneys to all those accused of felonies (and in most states, misdemeanors) links many practicing private defense attorneys to public funds as much as it does public defenders. In appointed cases, the money comes from either the federal or local government, as such there is always the threat of “budget problems," but my perception is that this is a remote threat.
What factors can affect criminal defense attorney salaries?
Private attorneys, except in the biggest cases, tend to get a flat fee. For example, someone accused of dealing cocaine will hire an attorney for ten thousand dollars, with an additional payment if and when the case proceeds to trial.
Appointed attorneys can be paid by the case (a flat fee, much less then a private attorney would get) or by the hour. Appointed attorneys are somewhat compensated for the lower case-by-case averages by being assured of a steady flow of new cases.
While the very, very best and the very, very worst criminal attorneys tend to live entirely on retained matters, most attorneys in the “excellent” and “very good” categories make a living by mixing state, federal, appointed and retained cases.
The only exception to the general rule of “criminal defense attorney’s pay depends on the size of the market they work in and their success in that market” is the oft-stated exception.
Well known among large city criminal defense attorneys, an area that is experiencing rapid population growth will typically enhance the ability of well-experienced defense attorney to “outperform the market."
Almost no criminal defense attorneys work as anything other then solo practitioners, though they may share expenses and office space with other defense attorneys. Big city large firms will often have one partner with experience in white collar crime defense to work on criminal and civil cases; those partners will often have one to three associates underneath him.
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