‘All My Clients Are Criminals’

How to Run a Criminal Law Practice without Losing Empathy or Your Mind

All My Clients Are Criminals’
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A few years in, or 10 years, or 20, to a criminal law practice may provide a lawyer with a moment of clarity: that all of her clients are criminals. Yes, they have due process rights. Yes, they may have been overcharged for acts, in the long run, that are not so reprehensible. Absolutely, they may have been subjected to government overreaching or inappropriate searches or brutal interrogations. Still, those clients are brushing up against the law, are already in trouble with the law, or are about to be.

Do you have to like them?

Of course not. The lawyer-client relationship ultimately is a business one. Clients need legal assistance; you provide it.

The Social Problem

But what such aloof, if accurate, assessments miss is the contemporary merger of work and social life. Lawyers with other sorts of practices may enjoy some casual bantering with clients in more social arenas, on the golf course, at the spa, during business conferences, and so on. Criminal lawyers can do so, too, of course — although such networking may result in more indirect referrals, a friend of a friend in a little bit of hot water knows you are a criminal lawyer and needs help. What you probably won’t be doing is going to a convention of the criminally accused or having big Christmas open houses for all of your clients.

You need to look at your law practice not as a means to a social life but as one upholding the Constitution and defending justice.

That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have a social life involving elements of your work sphere, but you may need to pursue one in ways slightly different than, say, a colleague concentrating on mergers and acquisitions might. Try becoming more active in bar associations, whether national or local.

Of course, criminal lawyers may also need to resist the temptation to challenge the system quite as much as their clients have done.

It’s one thing to defend those operating in what may be deemed gray areas of the law; it’s another to begin exploiting those nuances as part of your personal pursuits.

Here are some suggestions for keeping your attitude toward your work fresh and your outlook upbeat when working on criminal defense cases for the long term.

Work Pro Bono

Take on a pro bono case involving a slightly different area, one you are still competent to represent clients in, but that is not so directly akin to your day-to-day practice. You may soon appreciate again that very much of law practice involves people feeling that they have been wronged by someone, whether it’s ‘the system,’ their business partner, their about-to-be-former spouse, or someone who rear-ended their car. They have an injury of sorts, and they want to be made whole. They want things to be made right. They want to protect what they have, for themselves, for their families, for others. At the end of the day, are criminal defendants really so different? Maintaining any sort of career in the same field for a long time is hard. How to keep your practice and your attitude thriving as a criminal lawyer.

Accept Different Cases

If you are burning out on the types of cases you are getting, if you have grown weary of hearing about how one more privileged college freshman was arrested for getting high at a party or can’t summon enthusiasm for dealing with one more slightly off kleptomaniac charged with lifting makeup from a big-box store, mix up your mix.

If those sorts of cases are troubling you right now, don’t accept them. Refer them to your partner or to a colleague. Despite all the law enforcement in the world, crime hasn’t stopped occurring. There may be no shortage of charged defendants needing legal help

Exercise Your Empathy

Sit in a local court and watch sentencings for a while. Seeing one after the other defendant facing punishment, seeing their loved ones in the courtroom, may help you summon more empathic feeling toward those defendants, for the lives they were born into, for the success they managed to attain before their troubles overtook them.

Volunteer at a prison: teach reading or writing or other skills to inmates or become involved with a program that arranges for inmates’ children to visit them. Humanize those inmates, criminal defendants generally, your clients specifically.

Maintaining any sort of career in the same field for a long time is hard. Take steps to help make your own career satisfying for the long run.