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Why Do This Job?: Reflections on my 1,000th CLE Talk

Posted in Attorney-Client Relationship

Greetings from the Cordele, Georgia, Cracker Barrel. I am out and about and doing some client interviews today. Yesterday, I spoke to a group of law students about criminal defense. As is often the case, I was the only private practitioner on the panel. I am what is known in the biz as a “paid lawyer.” A big part of the talk was the topic of how we came to be in our current job. And that topic boils down to “why do you do what you do?”

The talk took a familiar turn. The best public defenders I know are quite passionate about helping the forgotten and the oppressed. A comment was even made at one point that money should not motivate a person to enter criminal practice. In my many years of speaking on panels, I’ve generally fallen victim to groupthink. And I’ve tried (probably unconvincingly) to say essentially “me, too.”

I am not being critical of the idea of passion for the oppressed as a motive for practicing law. Certainly, I would hope that every public defender feels that call.

But it is not authentic for me to say that such a passion drives me. And I think I’ve come out of some talks feeling slightly “off ” about things either because I said something I didn’t quite feel in my gut or because I felt guilty for not feeling a sense of passion for the poor in my legal practice. Come to think of it, if I felt such a drive, I would betray it every time I collect a fee or refuse to take on a case pro bono.

When it came my turn to speak I was more honest than I had been at a talk like this. I said that I think litigation is incredibly fun and intellectually challenging. I said that I like winning. And I find a sense of joy from dismantling a criminal conviction, working on an important case, and eviscerating a statute on constitutional grounds. What I didn’t say but should have said was that I am, in fact, motivated to do well financially in the practice/business of law.

I have always handled a few court appointed cases a year. But I have always viewed those cases as an opportunity to compete, litigation and try my best to win. I treat those cases just like retained cases. Why do I take them? Often, I do so to gain experience in an area (I’m developing a Federal practice, so I am doing more CJA work presently) to expand the range of cases I take on a retained basis. And sometimes the judge or the public defender entices me with a cool issue or some cool feature in the case. Alas, I have not taken an appointed case because of some social committment to the oppressed. It is great when that happens, but I cannot say that it is central to my thinking.

To take it a step further, I cannot think of motivation to be great at being a criminal defense attorney that is bad as long as it is consisted with the Georgia Rules of Professional Conduct, the Constitution, and the laws of the Federal and Georgia government. But I think our CLE and educational system suggests that one motivation outranks them all or that some are not valid and should induce guilt.

As a result, our schools and CLEs don’t often address topics such as how to set a fee, how to manage a law office, or how to responsibly and professionally market your practice. So, there is a cottage industry of snake oil salesmen out there who are not giving good advice. Meanwhile, at our CLEs we get a steady diet of the one true valid motivation to be great at criminal defense. This motivation is the one that is served.

Even worse, our very best and brightest law students may be deciding to do some other kind of law because they don’t feel that they have a pure motive to do it. I’m going to be up front with my motivations in the future and am going to stop feeling guilty about them.