Tuesday, June 12, 2012

The Criminal Defense Association: A Message To Young Lawyers

This past weekend I ended my term as Immediate Past President of FACDL at its 25th Annual Meeting. That's it, no more officer positions. I'm done there. I sit on the board as a past president, sent off to pasture as the chair of the quiet "long range planning" committee, and committing to not be the type that spends his time expressing his opinion on every single issue, reminding the kids at every moment how "we did things" and criticizing every new idea.

I'm looking forward to "retirement."

I joined FACDL as a public defender in 1995. Why wouldn't I? It was $35 a year, I got a magazine filled with articles written by people smarter and more experienced than me, and if I was going to be a Florida criminal defense lawyer, I was going to be a member of the Florida Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and their local Miami Chapter. I met the President of the Miami Chapter of FACDL and he invited me to a party at his office. As a PD, I had never received an invitation to a party at a private lawyer's office. My parties were limited to the local watering hole with other PD's.

Back then, there were no email list servs, and email was in it's infancy, so if you had a question, you called someone or pulled them aside in the courthouse. Through the Miami Chapter I got to know some great lawyers, made friends, and a few years later, I went to my first statewide annual meeting. I didn't know many people there, other than my Miami folks, but by the time I left, I had some new contacts throughout the state. I was asked to chair the new "young lawyers committee" for statewide, and haven't missed an annual meeting since.

Ten years after joining the Miami Chapter, I was its President, five years after that, I would be installed as President of statewide. I never joined these associations for the purpose of becoming President, but as things go, I would take on projects, committee assignments, and accept nominations.

I always encouraged people to get involved, to go to meetings, write for the magazine, go to happy hours, go to annual meetings. Always got the same excuses - no time, no money, no interest, FACDL does nothing. Some minds I could change, others were just interested in cursing the light, and the darkness.

The script is set in stone - something detrimental happens to the criminal defense bar, and non-members everywhere run to blogs and anonymously ask "where was FACDL?" Then there's those who do everything they can to avoid the annual meetings. The excuses are like a bad tape recording: "I have a trial set," (that will resolve), "my brothers third cousin is coming in to town and I need to be there every minute he is there," "I can't afford to go."

In my 17 years as a lawyer the referrals I have received from FACDL members are in an amount that is stunning. When I first went to the annual meeting, I stayed 2 nights and went to the seminar. Now, I stay 4 nights, sponsor part of the annual, bring gifts for people that have been good to me, and spend what I consider pennies on the dollar for the conference, drinks and food for friends, and their kids. It's called giving back, and I give back because I've been the recipient of a lot. I'm able to do this because I don't spend money on direct mail or a social media guru.

I invest in relationships.

But not everything was great. I no longer subscribe to the list serv for statewide. I was getting criticism for being "too mean" for some lawyers who use it as a research tool for every case they have, asking the most basic questions that a quick google search would discover, asking the same question that's been asked 20 times before. I attempted to make them better lawyers by encouraging them with sarcasm to do their own work first before asking, but some lawyers in this age of pampering and laziness wouldn't have it.

I used the listserv to refer cases to those asking for lawyers in cities across Florida and the United States, and to give answers to well thought out questions by lawyers who had done a stitch of work to resolve the issue. Now the listserv, from what I hear, is a nice friendly place. The two lawyers who made it clear that my tone was not welcome are lawyers that I respect, and to whom I used to refer clients. I guess they won that battle.

We also continue to get killed in the legislature. The majority of Florida's legislators have no use for the criminal defense bar. We need more members, more criminal defense lawyers, to run for office.

As I sat in my first board meeting this past Sunday as a nobody, I watched and listened to new young voices making arguments, proposing ideas, being involved. FACDL is going to continue to get stronger, I have no doubt.

If you are a criminal defense lawyer, you need to join your local and state criminal defense bar. Go to a meeting, go to all of them. Take on a committee assignment, plan a social event with a judge. Do something. You don't have to run for office in the association or be there for everything, but there are important issues to be dealt with, and strong relationships to be developed.

And don't tell me your association is a waste of time. I hear that from criminal defense lawyers. If you think it's a waste of time, then do something to make it not a waste of time. Stop screaming from the rafters.

Be relevant to the profession. If you care, about the profession.

Non-anonymous comments welcome. Brian Tannebaum is a criminal defense lawyer in Miami, Florida practicing in state and federal court, and the author of The Truth About Hiring A Criminal Defense Lawyer. Share/Save/Bookmark okdork.com rules Post to Twitter