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

Thursday, August 26, 2010

The Core Of A Criminal Defense Lawyer

Something's been happening lately. Questions have been swirling around my head about my role as a criminal defense lawyer.

I started as a public defender, my mornings all the same - rows of mostly men, in jumpsuits green or orange or hopefully not red, walking amongst the sounds of chains entering the courtroom and sitting in the jury box. They would sit, some would yawn, some would look around for that family member who "said they were coming." Some would indicate in a feeble attempt to raise a hand that there was urgency in speaking to me. They either had a question, a note with case citations, or just wanted to know, "am I going home today?" Some would wait until the judge arrived to announce that they wanted another lawyer, again.

Some days I knew what case or cases were going to trial, other days I would be surprised. This client didn't want probation even though he was facing 30 years, and that client found a witness named "shorty," or "pooh-boy" or "I don't know his name but here's his friends beeper number."

I tried the cases, I pled the clients guilty, I argued motions, I sought continuances to try and find a hole, or a prosecutor in a merciful mood.

Then I got bored, so I left. Yes, there was "more money" in private practice, more clients that weren't 3-time losers, more clients who had professional licenses and ways of paying legal fees.

After some time, I was lucky enough to be able to refer out cases I didn't want - cases that were good for a young lawyer starting out, cases that included clients who would suck the life blood out of me and my desire to enjoy my wife and kids.

And if I ever get to the point where I don't have to work anymore, I may consider going back to that life of being a public defender. I loved it, I just became bored and wanted to handle other types of criminal cases, do federal work, and have the luxury not to have 150 cases.

But lately I walk into a courtroom. I stand in the well and I look at that same jury box, with (some of) those same inmates.

I think they look at me differently these days. maybe its the suit, maybe it's the one file in my hands, maybe it's the way the judge greets me as opposed to "go talk to your client," or "have you made these plea offers yet?"

I think they know I'm not a public defender, and think (wrongfully) that my entrance into their case would be their ticket out of the system. I look at their tired eyes, their agitated faces, and I wonder if they think I'm some big shot private lawyer who has no use for them, or if they wish they could gather up some money to have a lawyer like me. A private lawyer. A "real" lawyer as they mistakenly think.

I don't feel guilty that most of my clients are first time offenders, and that most have a suit like mine, or can get one to wear to court. I don't think I've done something wrong by being a private practitioner. I'm not apologetic for my career.

But I look at these inmates, and I think back to a time when my life was dedicated to them, and only them. Sure, I know I could take court appointments. I take court appointments in federal court where the respect for appointed lawyers exists. In state court, it used to be easy to take an appointed case. Now it's better to do a case pro-bono in state court than deal with trying to get paid.

Dealing with incarcerated clients is a world apart from those that come in and say "I just can't go to jail," in a way that they think they are the first client to make that statement. Incarcerated clients with prior convictions are a bit more realistic (not all) about their situation and are sitting across from maybe the only person in their life who has tried to do anything for them in recent time, or ever.

We criminal defense lawyers know too well about the poor client we were appointed to represent who gets convicted and sent to prison that says "thank you for fighting for me," and the private client who paid a fee, had his case dismissed, and wonders out loud why they ever needed a lawyer.

What I write about here is not something I'm "struggling" with, or something that is causing me to re-think my practice. I do plenty of pro-bono work. I give plenty of free advice.

I think I am just reaching the point in my career where I'm starting to think about my "core," and how I can spend a bit more time there.

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/Bookmarkokdork.com rules Post to Twitter


  1. This is really quite lovely. Were you high when you wrote this?

  2. Anonymous2:13 AM

    Nice way to assuage the old conscience. I have a friend who spent some time as a defense attorney. He then became a prosecutor, taking a major pay cut in the process, but he can look himself in the mirror far more easily.

  3. This post made me laugh. It made me cry. It became a part of me. You have touched my soul.

  4. Anonymous is a dickwad. His friend wasn't making a dime which is why he went to be a prosecutor. Probably sucked at working for a firm, or for himself. Probably was a shitty defense lawyer since he didn't have anyone barking out orders or telling him what to do. Probably fucked up his clients rights on a daily basis, hence the inability to look himself in the mirror. Clearly didn't believe in our constitution. We are better off without him on our side.

  5. Anonymous9:46 PM


    The guy (I went to school with him, he went into law, I didn't) was a private criminal defense lawyer for 5 years. He didn't enjoy it, although he made a good (not great) living. I can't tell you how successful he was in defending his clients, as we moved to different cities when we started work. I can tell you what he said to me a social gathering, that since he became a prosecutor he makes far less money, but has a cleaner conscience. His problem was that most (not all) of his clients were factually guilty of what they had been charged with. If that makes me a dickwad to say, that is your opinion. If you want to believe that every one of your clients, or even a majority of them, are factually innocent, then I have some desert swampland to sell you.

    I understand the need to have rationalizations for what you guys do. We all need to sleep at night peacefully. Heck, I even support having criminal defense lawyers do their best for their clients. It keeps the state honest and makes the government really prove guilt. That still doesn't prevent innocent people from going to prison, but it hopefully slows the process. But, really at the end of the day, if you perform brilliantly, and get someone who you know actually did commit some heinous act acquitted, does that make you feel good? Especially if your client had an innocent victim who will now not get justice through the legal system? Yes, your job as defense counsel IS needed, but there are a lot of unwholesome tasks that need to be done in our society. That they are needed doesn't make them good. But heck, if you can make a fortune at it, then rationalize away about government tyranny. Just remember that some of your clients have real tangible victims, with lives destroyed or damaged by the people you defend. Those victims are not "the government". Those victims are little children, raped women, or people who have died because of something your client did. The state doesn't always charge your clients just because it is amusing or politically expedient, although that DOES happen sometimes. Sometimes your clients get charged because, amazingly enough, they actually DID hurt or kill another human being. And if you are successful, that harmed human being will never get justice within the legal system. That sure is something to be proud of.

  6. Anonymous9:59 PM


    Call me a dickwad of you like. I can tell you what a former member of the defense bar, who I know as a friend, told me. He said he took a 1/4 pay cut, but is far happier. He also told me that the majority, but not all, of his clients were factually guilty of what they had been charged with.

    On the topic of rationalizations I do have a fairly strong view. If you REALLY believe that all, or even a majority of your clients are factually innocent (as in they didn't actually commit the deed they were charged with), then I have a bridge to sell you. Yes, your job is absolutely neccessary for the courts to function fairly. Yes, you can make vast sums of money defending guilty people who can afford your fees. No, not every crime has a victim who is badly harmed. Not every suspect needs to get hammered with prison time. But, there are cases where if you do succeed, an innocent victim who your client raped, killed or otherwise assaulted, does not get justice. That isn't "the government" against your client as the rationalizations you have says. That is innocent human being, harmed or killed by your client, who has no legal recourse because you did your job well. I doubt if I could sleep well at night knowing that because I did my job well at 200$ per hour, a rapist or killer walked free. If fact, I would need a very strong fortress of moral excuses. But then again, I am not a defense attorney either.

  7. Anonymous10:40 PM

    It isn't that I don't see a place for a high quality defense bar. I would like to see public defenders with far more funding and manpower. Without you guys, far more innocent people would face legal sanctions. What I object to is this pious "noble paladins defending a bunch of doe eyed innocent victims targeted by the evil government for no reason" rhetoric. Your job is to make the state prove every element of its case or at least to obtain the best deal possible for your client, but the fact remains that most of your clients ARE guilty. To rationalize otherwise is just to assuage your own conscience.

    Let me cite an example of a good criminal defense attorney I know. He was a cop who was an absolute wizard at racking up many airtight OVI (drunk driving) arrests. He retired, went to law school...and now has a practice that mainly defends drunk drivers. He is very good at it and makes a boatload of money. He has a good success rate defending his clients as well. I once charged one his clients with OVI and he got it reduced to a 100$ traffic fine for a non-OVI moving violation. This client was wasted and even blew a .10 BAC, but that is good legal talent at work. It was awesome to behold. If I am ever charged with OVI I know who to hire. But he is under no illusions about his clients' guilt if you talk with him "outside of school." If you are charged with OVI, this is the lawyer you want to hire. Not because he believes all the pious BS rhetoric about his "client being victimized by the state for no reason", but because even if he knows you were totally wasted behind the wheel, he has the legal skills to give you a great defense. If you pay him enough he will use those skills at your behest.

    This is a perfectly honest and mercenary way to make a living, and it avoids the rationalizations.

  8. Anonymous10:41 PM

    Please delete the double post. Sorry about that. I thought it didn't register.

  9. If you read my blog you will know that I find no need to rationalize. We do what we do because we love it and we're good at it. I don't give a shit if they did it. Does that sound callous and cold? Too bad. I have a job to do and I do it.

    Brian filled out the rest in his next post.

  10. Anonymous: You don't know what you're talking about.

    "I have a friend who's a lawyer and he told me..."

    No one gives a shit about what some random friend of yours told you It's meaningless. YOU. Don't. Know. What. You're. Talking. About.