Wednesday, August 29, 2012

A perspective on the financial difficulties faced by solos doing criminal defense work

As of late, a few bloggers have been chronicling the financial challenges of running a solo practice in a business climate where lawyers are undercutting each others' fees just to get the business (here, here and here).  For a very sobering view of just how tough it can be operating a solo practice even for experienced, very skilled lawyers, check out this blog post from Simple Justice describing the additional financial challenges facing those who practice criminal law where paying clients can be as hard to find as flood insurance in New Orleans during hurricane season.

Cut the Crap.

[I recently spoke with a guy who] had left a stable and reasonably well-paying job to go solo.  Unlike [this guy], he had a strong reason to do so, having gone from defense lawyer to prosecutor, only to find that he couldn't stomach the job and had to return to defense.  Even so, he looked back on his decision as a monumental mistake.

He was an experienced lawyer, with more than ten years in the trenches.  He had substantial trial experience, though he hadn't tried a case since going out on his own.  He followed the advice, played by the rules, and came into the game with the legitimate ability to fulfill his obligation to defendants.

He was dying.  His business was essentially non-existent.  As his savings depleted, the realization of more than a decade of his life, the sacrifices of his family, hit home. 

During the conversation, he told me that as he talked to other criminal defense lawyers, he was told that they were doing great. Fabulous. Big cases here. Huge cases there. Trials, trials, trials. New clients calling daily, with interesting cases and bulging wallets.  Life couldn't be better.

"Why," he asked me, "was everybody lying?  Or am I the only one drowning?"

I've spoken with many lawyers, many readers. You know who you are. You know that I know the truth. The business of criminal defense is dying. It's awful. It sucks. And you're hanging on by a thread, if at all.  Yet, most put on their game face, talking themselves up as if they are somehow beating the odds, knocking down the world, making a killing. Nobody wants to tell their brethren that they're in the same boat, struggling daily to cover the nut and praying that the next phone call isn't another nutjob or desperate defendant without a dime to his name.

It's not that there is a shortage of criminal defendants, though crime is significantly down and serious crime even more so.  There is a shortage of criminal defendants who can afford to pay for a lawyer.  Sure, there are  some lawyers who are doing well, but you can count them on your fingers and toes, without resort to dropping trou. And there are a great many criminal defense lawyers, exceptionally good ones, who fight over crumbs these days, because that's all they can do to survive.

It's time we admit this, because walking around the courtroom hallways with our chests puffed out isn't putting any food on our tables. 

During my phone call, we spoke of the baby lawyers hanging out in the hallways trying to catch the attention of a defendant's mother with $100 in her pocket.  We spoke of n00bs, barely competent if at all, taking felonies for $1500 total.  He didn't blame them, knowing they had loans to pay.


Continue reading here.


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