A blog by Miami Criminal Defense Lawyer Brian Tannebaum. Commenting on criminal law issues of local and national interest.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

A Free Guide For Former BigLaw Now Criminal Defense Lawyers

Over at the second best law blog in the country, Simple Justice, Scott Greenfield muses about the laid off BigLaw's coming over to slum it in the criminal courthouses of America. In short, he hits the nail on the head:

"With law firms laying off lawyers indiscriminately, and lawyers having bills to pay and mouths to feed, one can reasonably expect them to take their framed Law Review Certificates off the wall, put on some comfortable shoes and make a clean start of it in the trenches. Why? Because their options are limited.

Most will try their hand at some variation of the law they experienced in the wood paneled libraries of their former homes, but when they find that large corporations don't frequently shop for counsel in the back alleys off Main Street, they will come to realize that they need to adapt. The first adaptation will be that they will take any client who walks through the door. The second is that they will take whatever fee the client can afford. Hey, the ability to buy a cup-o-noodles is better than going hungry."

This certain move from the mahogany desk and ice bucket filled conference rooms filled also with irrelevant white shirted pale associates hoping one day to depose a witness or even talk to a client turn into a search for space (if not the home den) and trips into courtrooms to help real people (that's why you went to law school, no?) without announcing the 7 named partners when stating your appearance.

This is tough. This is like watching the guy at the gate bitching that he's supposed to be seated in first class and being told that only coach is available. People like me laugh.

So former BigLaw, here's your free guide to practicing criminal defense:

[1] We don't bill by the hour, send confirmatory letters, put 2 associates on every case, give opposing counsel ridiculous deadlines by when to respond, or threaten to "go to court."

[2] Now that 80% of you are crying, throwing up, or headed for the roof, here's some more.

[3] You have no idea what you are doing, so act like you have no idea what you are doing when you are around defense lawyers, judges, prosecutors, and especially clerks.

We experienced criminal lawyers act like this often, as it gets us more than busting in and playing the genius. Trust me, you'll figure it out soon.

[4] See those people sitting at tables drinking coffee and reading the paper?

Go sit with them, It's OK, they shower, have kids, mortgages, like good restaurants and watch TV. Talk to them. Tell them who you are and make a friend or two. We know you criticized us for years (except at cocktail parties where you said that you "respect" what we do). Say hello, buy the coffee, and cry for help. You'll get it.

[5] Watch the briefcase.

Those rolling trial bags are great. A briefcase with a few scratches is perfect. That brand new black leather thing, not so much. I have one and hardly use it, but I've been around for a while so it's OK. Yours will stick out like you do.

[6] Join the criminal defense association and show up to something.

No, the local charities for which you are a member but have never done anything won't care, your neighbors won't stop talking to you, and cops won't stalk you as you drive down the street.

[7] Unless you are going to speak negatively of BigLaw, don't bring it up.

Think of it as talking about a former boyfriend/girlfriend. "She was such a bitch" sounds much better than "Oh, I still love her so much."

[8] Understand that you have spent years doing nothing of any importance.

What you are doing now, is important. Do not take cases that are over your head. It takes about 4 words for the criminal defense bar, prosecutors, and judges to know that you are a fish out of water. So before you go into court and demand a hearing that everyone else waives and has waived for 30 years, talk to someone.

[9] Speaking of talking to someone, public defenders.

Yes, those people you said "couldn't hack it at BigLaw" or wanted an "easy government job," those public defenders. You don't need to apologize to them, although I don't discourage it. You do need to understand this: they are the most knowledgeable people in the courtroom.

When an experienced criminal defense lawyer gets a case before a judge he's never been before, the first call is to the public defender. They know the "mood" of the courtroom. I know this will be hard for you to absorb, but when you do, your life will be much easier. Talk to them, a lot. Don't bother them though, they are very busy and can smell you coming from far, far away.

[10] Get over your anti-solo practitioner bullshit.

I've spoken with 2 former BigLaws recently who are horrified at the notion of solo practice. I've heard "it's just the perception."

Listen, real people with real problems don't hire firms, they hire lawyers. Up to now, you weren't a lawyer, you were a tool in a firm. Now you're trying to be a lawyer. You go to a hospital when you're sick, or a doctor? You think you're going to a hospital, but you are actually seeing a doctor. The hospital is merely a place where the doctor practices. Get over this crap, look where it got you.

Brian Tannebaum is a criminal defense lawyer in Miami, Florida practicing in state and federal court. Read his free ebook The Truth About Hiring A Criminal Defense Lawyer. To learn more about Brian and his firm, Tannebaum Weiss, please visit www.tannebaumweiss.com


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  1. Anonymous4:47 PM

    Damn, Brian, you don't spare them a bit, do you? I guess they're better off reading it here instead of having it read to them in the courtroom.

  2. Anonymous9:33 PM

    As a prosecutor, I will tell you up front, we mock you big law guys. It cracks us up when you come into court and start making demands, and otherwise show that you really have no idea what your talking about.

    Having said that, dont be afraid to approach me and ask me questions either. I have helped non-criminal attorneys fill out plea forms, etc. Some of us are jerks, but most of us are helpful and there to do a job, and will help you if you just ask for it.

    And yes, we see you coming a mile away. I dont even think it takes 4 words.

  3. Anonymous10:50 PM

    Brian, as your former sometime adversary and BigLaw dropout (OK, it was a midsize firm full of huge egos who thought my six-plus years of daily courtoom was the rough equivalent of being the fry guy at McDonald's), and now handling both civil and criminal matters in a smaller, though technically midsize firm, you hit the nail on the head.

    Far too many civil litigators have no clue what to do in a courtoom. And as someone who now does more than my fair share of civil work, a large number of the best civil trial attorneys started their legal career as a prosecutor or public defender.

  4. Dude, this is hilarious! And very, very true.

  5. This is incredibly informative. I know a great San Diego criminal defense attorney that shares a lot of these beliefs. Keep up the excellent work.