Starting Out as a Criminal Defence Lawyer – Some Advice

It’s a time marked both by excitement and apprehension. I clearly
remember the day I graduated and even though I was only 24, I have seen a
common reaction in law graduates no matter what age.

The greatest single benefit I had after graduation was my one-year
articling term. Criminal lawyers are usually lone-wolves. Unlike civil
litigators who practice in groups and firms, a criminal lawyer is
typically a sole practitioner either practising alone or in a
cost-sharing arrangement with other criminal lawyers who are also sole
practitioners. This has its advantages and disadvantages. If you have an
articling term in your jurisdiction, don’t waste it. Do some research
and send out resumes to criminal lawyers only, and only those who are
practising as sole practitioners because they are the ones from whom you
will have the maximum one-on-one attention.

I learned a lot from my articling principle. I stuck to him like
glue; went to court with him, stayed late when he did, got to the office
early when he did. I learned not only how he practised criminal law,
but also how he operated the business of the practice of law. After
articling, there was the bar admission course (six months) during which
time I worked part-time for him. After I got called to the bar, he
offered me a job and I worked for him for another year. Then an office
became available in his suite and I set up my own practice, in a
cost-sharing association with him. After three more years, I leased my
own space and started my own cost-sharing association. But I never
believed that anything else was a more important start to my practice
than my year of articling.

If you don’t have that in your jurisdiction, then try to do the next
best thing. Try to get a job with a senior criminal lawyer of good
reputation who is a sole practitioner and stick to him/her like glue. It
is important that you carefully choose who you work for. The greatest
asset of a criminal lawyer is his ethical reputation and, therefore, his
credibility. That goes a long way. So find a lawyer with a good, solid
ethical reputation. He/she will teach you how to practice that way and
teach you how to develop your own credibility in the field. Another
benefit is that you will have a head start in that area just by virtue
of having been known to have worked for a respectable and well-known
criminal lawyer. After you have worked in that capacity for 1-3 years,
you can consider yourself prepared to hang out your own shingle.

My second piece of advice is to join your local Criminal Lawyers
Association and other professional lawyers associations, and become
active in them. I found early on that the lawyers who practice well and
have a good reputation tend to donate about 25% of their time to
professional activities. Not only do you learn a lot from the best of
your field of practice, but you also gain access to the best CLE
(continuing legal education) programs. If you have a Young Lawyers
Division, join that as well. I was quite active in that respect,
especially in the first 7 years of my practice. It is also very
enjoyable and a gives you a good break from the day-to-day stresses of
running your business. It is a social outlet as well as a rich learning
opportunity. You’ll find that the senior lawyers that enjoy what they do
also enjoy teaching young lawyers what they do. You’ll gain some very
good mentors.

My third piece of advice is to enjoy what you’re doing. Try not to
succumb to the financial burden of starting up a practice by accepting
every kind of case and every kind of client. Personally, I believe that
it is worth the sacrifice of taking a dip in revenue rather than taking
on cases where you don’t like the client or the work involved in
representing that client. If you decline to accept a case, make sure you
can provide the client with a referral to another criminal lawyer whom
you respect and trust. Do not ask for, or accept, a referral fee. He/she
will appreciate the referral and you will be developing a referral
network which can be a good source of business.

Fourthly, if a particular case usually involves 10 hours of prep
time, spend 20. (I actually continue to do that even after 20 years of
practice). It makes you look good when you know the facts cold, know the
case law pertaining to a particular situation well and can stand on
your feet and answer the judge’s questions without looking down. You
will particularly catch everyone off guard because you are just starting
out. You look green, you sound green, but you handle yourself like a
seasoned professional.

Fifth, you may be thinking of internet marketing and that may be of
some benefit. However, you will find that the greater part of your
practice will develop from referrals from previous clients. If you
really put everything into client contact and preparation, your clients
will see that you work hard and if they have friends that need you, they
will send them to you. Do not underestimate the importance of
maintaining good client relations. Don’t wait for the client to call you
and ask, “How’s my case?”. Initiate a call at least once a month (once a
week if you have time), let them know what’s going on, say hi. That
will stand you apart from your competitors. If a client calls and leaves
a message, return the call as quickly as you can. They will be
impressed. I get that all the time, “Wow, that was fast”.

Back in my early days, there was no email. Now I set aside some time
on Friday afternoon and fire off a brief email to all my clients (it
doesn’t take as long as you might initially think):

“Hi John (or Mr. Smith). Just thought I would touch base with you and
let you know that I am still waiting for some outstanding disclosure
from the Crown. I’m going to court next week and I’ll put a little
pressure on the Crown to get this case moving for you. Once I receive
all of the missing items, you and I should get together and review the
next step. What is your schedule usually like during the week?”

Developing a rapport with mentors, colleagues and clients is not only
a benefit to your business, but also makes the practice of law
enjoyable. You will find that you will be going home to your family
telling them about what a good day you had, instead of what kind of
stressful day you had. A genuine smile also lets clients, judges and
juries know that you are confident and competent.

Practising Criminal Law in Toronto, it is my experience that the
Crown Attorneys are generally very good; very professional, very
competent and a pleasure to deal with as an opponent in and out of
court. They will respect you if you stick to your ground, having done
your research and not being reticent about trying a case or a
constitutional argument that is fairly well-founded.

Once in a while, you may come across a Crown that is not so. When in court, I find the best way to deal with them is:

This approach will contrast you and have the effect of emphasising
the negatives of your opposing counsel. Avoid making sarcastic or
caustic remarks in responding to your opposing counsel. It’s your
professionalism that will carry the day.

(c) 2011 Steven Tress, Barrister and Solicitor. All Rights Reserved Worldwide.