Private Criminal Defense Careers
Criminal defense attorneys usually have a great deal of trial experience, even if their goal is never to set foot in a courtroom. "If you want to be a criminal defense attorney, you'd better be prepared to go to court," says one defense lawyer. "You can't hide from a trial, if that's what's going to happen." No matter what the charge is -- from drunk and disorderly conduct to first-degree murder -- there is a criminal defense attorney who specializes in it. Private criminal attorneys are usually the choice of those with enough resources to pay the hourly fee; they will likely provide more personal attention than the public defender, with his busy caseload, can offer. Because every criminal defendant is entitled to an attorney, and because people will always run afoul of the law, there will always be work for private criminal attorneys.
It is possible, but rare, to become a private criminal defense attorney right out of law school. Most successful criminal defense lawyers come from either the prosecutor's or the public defender's office. The vast majority of criminal defense attorneys make less money than their corporate law counterparts, unless their area of expertise is white-collar crime.
Many large law firms have a white-collar criminal defense division. White-collar defense attorneys also work at small firms and as solo practitioners. These attorneys are generally a different batch from the criminal defense lawyers discussed above. White-collar attorneys typically represent corporate clients against regulatory boards such as the Securities and Exchange Commission or against the corporate crime division of the U.S. attorney's office. Unlike crimes such as burglary, murder or rape, white-collar crime rarely includes a physical component. Embezzlement, fraud, price-fixing, racketeering and bribery are all considered white-collar crime. Punishment for those found guilty can include both jail sentences and hefty fines.
In a complicated criminal action against a particular company, almost every director, officer and prominent employee will have his own legal representation. Once these people might have worked harmoniously for the same business, but now they have conflicting interests. "Even though [white collar] is not particularly dangerous, it's still a criminal defense," says one litigator who has been involved in white-collar cases. "You're defending people accused of crimes, and they can end up testifying against their former co-workers, bosses and friends. It can get ugly."
White-collar criminal defense attorneys can often make money comparable to or even greater than those attorneys engaged in large-scale civil litigation. Just as in large civil lawsuits, corporate entities or officers are often willing to spend a great deal of money to stave off criminal penalties.
Even after a jury of 12 people or a trial judge has found your client guilty or awarded her thousands of dollars in damages, her case may not yet be over. Some cases can be appealed to a higher court, and you might find yourself drafting briefs and making arguments before a panel of appeals court judges. Issues of fact that have already been decided by a jury or judge cannot be appealed; a question of law, however, may almost always be appealed. A lawyer in an appellate court will neither examine witnesses, nor introduce evidence, but instead rely on the record of the proceedings in the court below. At the appellate level, attorneys argue not whether an offender actually stabbed the victim or whether a company did in fact terminate a difficult employee, but rather whether the criminal defendant received a fair trial and whether evidence of the employee's wrongdoing was properly admitted at trial. If the appellate judges find that the trial judge made improper rulings (for example, by admitting or disallowing certain evidence, or by granting a motion for summary judgment before the case went to trial), the decision can be overturned, the amount of damages reduced or the case remanded back to the lower court for a new trial.
Some litigators handle both trial- and appellate-level litigation; others specialize in either trial work or appellate argument. Both private firms and the government employ appellate attorneys. Appellate lawyers spend most of their time researching legal issues and reviewing the evidence used at trial. They must be comfortable working with the law when the facts have already been decided. Appellate lawyers will eventually submit exhaustive briefs and often prepare an oral argument for the appellate judges. There will be no jury or witnesses, and the judges will interrupt the attorney periodically with questions. Appellate attorneys, therefore, must be strong public speakers and able to think quickly on their feet.
Appellate attorneys working for the state make a government salary, albeit a bit more than their trial counterparts. Private attorneys specializing in appellate cases can make an unlimited amount of money. Most appellate attorneys either have prior trial experience or experience clerking for a judge.