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

Thursday, July 09, 2009

Someone Get Me A "Former Federal Prosecutor."

I often joke that there are criminal defense lawyers and "former prosecutors" (practicing criminal defense). Some laugh. The ones that don't, know I'm talking about them.

I am not, a former federal prosecutor. I am not a former prosecutor. I am a criminal defense attorney. I formerly worked as a criminal defense attorney at the public defender's office, and I make sure I always let the appropriate person, reader, or audience know that I am a former public defender.

I do not, though, identify my basic existence with that former position of which I am very proud.

When I have appeared in print or on radio or TV, I never ask to be identified as a "former public defender." Again, I used to work at the public defender's office doing what I do now, criminal defense. I am a criminal defense lawyer. If I ever was a prosecutor, I would not want to live in the past and tell the world at every opportunity what I used to do.

Former federal prosecutors, and former prosecutors to a lesser extent, seem to find themselves using that title in curious situations.

This week on the Today Show there was a segment discussing what will happen to Michael Jackson's kids. Jeanine Pirro, former New York Judge and DA was commenting perfectly on California family law, never leading the audience to realize she knows nothing about California law besides what the person she called in California before the show told her. (Sorry to blow the secret that lawyers and judges know nothing about law in other states)

And there was this other female lawyer on the comfy couch. I didn't hear the whole segment, but I saw across the bottom of the screen: "Former Federal Prosecutor."

There are only two possibilities here. This woman is a former federal prosecutor now practicing family law, or she is, well, just a former federal prosecutor doing something else. Either way, who cares? Is there some theory that the custody of Michael Jackson's kids will become of interest to the U.S Attorney? I know we're upset no one's been arrested yet in MJ's death and no Law & Order episode has been "ripped from the headlines," but do we really need to suggest that a former prosecutor, sorry, former federal prosecutor is the only person to comment on....custody?

Why was this woman referred to as a "Former Federal Prosecutor?" Did she ask, or did the Today Show think it sounded good.

It doesn't end there.

One of the dirty little secrets of this title is that it is used to mask the terrible things that "Former Federal Prosecutors" and Former Prosecutors do after they stop being Prosecutors," like become defense lawyers.

That, they refer to as "Private Practice."

Look at any candidate for judge or state or local office. Look at their resume. "Former prosecutor now in private practice?" BINGO - defense lawyer. Criminal defense lawyer. Shhhhhh.

I've always wondered what the media's love affair is with "Former Prosecutors." To me, they simply perpetrate the notion that these are the lawyers who know everything and are best suited to answer questions in any situation, because they used to prosecute criminal cases.

It has long been the mantra that being a "former prosecutor" is a better pedigree than being a former public defender. That's absolutely true. Former prosecutors are more likely to be hired at big firms who believe that clients will want to hire them to defend. They are more likely to be appointed to the bench, elected to office, and of course, plastered on TV to answer questions, about anything.

Even if they are now, "in private practice."


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. I'm a former federal prosecutor.

    The term has strange talismanic impact in various situations. Mostly that's irrational. But it's good marketing. "I went to [prestigious law school]" is similar that way -- opens doors and impresses the easily impressed, but irrationally so.

    The media loves to say "former federal prosecutor" because they think that people will go "ooooo." Which some do. Mostly people who don't have a firm grasp of what people did as federal prosecutors.

    "Former federal prosecutor" is impressive to some criminal defendants seeking representation. Some of that is rational (it doesn't hurt to have appeared in front of that judge for years, to be familiar with federal court practice, to have handled dozens of cases like this, and to know the prosecutors on the case), and some of it is irrational (defense lawyering requires additional skills and mindsets that prosecution does not, and being a decent defense attorney takes practice and learning whether or not you've been a prosecutor -- or perhaps especially if you've been a prosecutor).

  2. You are right on the money. Former prosecutor is a great marketing tool and it's meaning is elevated by the perception more than reality. If I was a former prosecutor, I'd let every potential client know. On the other hand, I think clients need to evaluate other things besides the title. Most don't. They figure if this lawyer used to put people in jail, they can keep people out of jail.

    What kills me is when a "former prosecutor" appears in the media and I learn they were a prosecutor from 1978-1980 and have been doing commercial litigation ever since.

  3. As you stated, if you were a former federal prosecutor, you would be using it for marketing too.

    The fact of the matter is that my experiences as an AUSA (and ADA in NYC) gives me credibility and insight when I recommend a course of action to fight off the government's next move.

    This is an asset I proudly bring to my clients' cases every day.

  4. Yes John, but I would not make it the focus of my basic existence, making a living off of retained clients based solely on what I "used" to do. Obviously with your website http://formerfedlawyer.com and having been a prosecutor for about 15 years, you have made being a former prosecutor the central focus of why clients should hire you, and not based on your work as a defense lawyer.

    I see a ton of information about your previous career, and just a little about your last 2 years. I see in the "In the news" section that you got someone a bond, handled a high profile guilty plea, and stopped someone's deportation.

    I'm wondering why that's not on the home page?

    I trust you were a wonderful prosecutor, and maybe you're a damn good defense lawyer, but I can't tell from your marketing.

    My hope is that clients look more at a lawyer's ability to keep people out of jail than their ability to put them there.

  5. "The fact of the matter is that my experiences as an AUSA (and ADA in NYC) gives me credibility and insight when I recommend a course of action to fight off the government's next move."

    Typical ex-prosecutor advertising mumbo-jumbo. Sounds good to the clients but, on closer scrutiny, doesn't actually mean anything. Sorry, John.

  6. John, you're a dick.

  7. Anonymous6:16 PM

    Give me a break, Mark. The fact of the matter is that anyone who has experience on the other side of the aisle brings a useful perspective to the job that others don't have. This applies to prosecutors moving to defense as well as defense attorneys moving to prosecution (yes, it happens on occasion). There's something to be said for having walked the proverbial mile in another's shoes.

  8. Anonymous10:18 AM

    Most former federal prosecutors have never heard the words NOT GUILTY when defending. They just can't get the prosecutor out of themselves. The best criminal defense lawyers are former fed or state public defenders. Anyone who goes by the title former prosecutor are bottom feeding pretenders.

  9. Anonymous9:19 AM

    Did you really write an entire article on that and engage a bunch of people in a conversation on that?

    All you people need to get out more and stop taking yourselves so seriously.