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

Sunday, September 12, 2010

A Disgruntled Prosecutor Seeks Advice

In this "tough on crime" "Law & Order" world we live in, there is a notion that prosecutors and cops (except the ones who are taser happy) are the good guys, and defense lawyers are "the problem." It is assumed that all prosecutors are in the right, doing the right thing, and committed to the concept of convictions and jail.

And then a defense lawyer (me) receives an email like this:

I apologize for the anonymity of this e-mail. I am indeed a disgruntled prosecutor.

I’m writing to you because I need some advice.

You see before I became a prosecutor I was a defense lawyer. I built my practice the old fashioned way – one client at a time with a healthy dose of referrals from other lawyers.

After a while the frustration of criminal defense work got the better of me and I applied for and was given a position as a prosecutor.

The truth is that I took the job for all the wrong reasons: financial stability and to have a shorter workday and not because I had a burning desire to prosecute people.

Well, I’ve been at this for a few years now and my dislike for what I do has gotten so bad that I can’t look at myself in the mirror anymore without seeing nothing but a fraud. I don’t believe in what our office does, I cringe at the arguments I make in court and I spend most of my days fantasizing about how I will quit.

I want to return to defense work. If anything, my time as a prosecutor has shown my just how defense minded I really was (and still am). I would leave my job tomorrow but my wife and I have young children now, a mortgage and bills. The economy is not the greatest and as much as I hate my job, walking away from a job that pays me over 100K a year with benefits and a pension so I can hang my shingle – essentially jumping into the unknown – leaves me scared shitless!

If anything this e-mail is a cry for help!

Any credible defense lawyer wants a prosecutor that, while doing the government's work, has some concept and respect for the defense function. I've always said that any prosecutor that has no respect for the other side of the courtroom, should quit or be fired immediately. (don't laugh).

But my anonymous friend is so committed to the defense function, that he needs to quit, tomorrow. He doesn't believe in what he is doing, and although there is no evidence he's not doing his job, he is being both unfair to himself, and his office. There are too many on both sides of the criminal justice system, that are just "doing their job" without any concern for the lives they are affecting.

There are those out there in this social media lawyer world that will scoff at my notion that this guy should walk away from his six figure job, but he should. He doesn't have a job, he is part of a profession, and within that profession he is working each day to convict people and possibly put them in jail. He doesn't want to do that, and he shouldn't.

But he should be smart about his future. He needs to give sufficient notice, and make sure he has enough funds to keep him fluid for a couple months. He needs to go back to building his practice as he did - one client as a time. He needs to stay away from the online snake oil salesmen who, for a fee, will claim to teach him the secrets of practicing law by laptop. And he needs to know that the economy is not what it was 2 or 3 years ago. Clients are not able to tap into lines of credit for legal fees, and there are more unemployed lawyers claiming to be "experienced" criminal defense lawyers - even though they are really experienced real-estate lawyers, without any real estate on which to work.

I trust he welcomes your advice as well.

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. To that anonymous prosecutor:

    Brian's right that you're being unfair to yourself, and your office. Maybe more important, you're also being unfair to your wife and kids.

    If you're as miserable, as eaten up with self-loathing for the job you're actually doing as you say, you may be providing material support to your family, but he's not giving them what they deserve from you: You.

    This isn't that annoying work/life balance thing. This is just who the guy is who comes through the doorway at the end of the day. You may have more time to spend with the family as a prosecutor, but the time is worth far less.

    As Brian says, you need to quit ASAP. And if you're as passionate about being a criminal defense lawyer as you suggest, and if you're any good at the work at all (which those referrals suggest you probably were) you'll do just fine in a bit - even in this economy.

    Go guy. We need more like you on our side of the aisle. And you need to be here.

    Best of luck.

  2. To all who read this post:

    INAL, but I've never understood how someone defense-biased couldn't work as prosecution.

    If the anonymous prosecutor doesn't like the arguments he's making ... stop making them. If the police botched something up, call them out on it and don't use it.

    To me, your cry for help seems more like a fear of doing "justice." Do JUSTICE.

    Even as defense-biased as I am, I want to live in a world where the police obey the law, and enforce the law in a fair manner. I also want to live in a world where the guilty are punished only as much as they must be and the innocent are always spared.

    Being a prosecutor seems like the perfect position to uphold those high values.

  3. JW - uh, we can't be prosecutors because it's not as if you get to call the shots on what you do. There are statistics to maintain. DOJ issues guidelines on how they are to treat certain cases regardless of the real people that might be standing in front of them. In New York defense attorneys are frequently called on to be special prosecutors in cases where the DA's office has a conflict. Folks do it because it pays almost twice as much as indigent defense does. They've convinced themselves they can 'do justice'.

    I was a prosecutor once. I sucked at it because justice was not the name of the game. They are beholden to their constituents - the masses. And, well. They aren't all that interested in justice either.

    When I decided to come back to the world I applied for a job with the DEA because I had a very good friend who was there. I'm so glad I didn't get it. I'm sure they knew that my heart wasn't in it.

  4. Mirriam, I hope you're making that up. I don't think you are lying, but I'm going to pretend so I can sleep at night.

    Seriously? Prosecutors hand is forced by some STATISTICS? Statistics aren't justice. I'm so confused.

  5. Damn, you notice how often that nasty word "justice" sticks its nose into discussions and ends up being the source of confusion?

    While I admire Jeff's positive attitude, it may be a bit overly rosy. There are plenty of competent, zealous criminal defense lawyers sitting in their office at this very moment praying that their phone will ring, and it won't be another Avvo special on the line asking for a free consultation.

    And the children like to eat every day.

  6. Rich Mantei1:20 PM

    "Anon," you need to quit or be fired, right now. Too "frustrated" defending the accused, so you decided to become a prosecutor (aside-- Brian, how does this make him "so committed to the defense function"??)? You mistakenly assumed it would be easier. By your own admission you take over $100k of the taxpayers'money and "cringe" at your own work. You at least recognize yourself as a fraud (the cynic in me would say "thief" might apply as well). But based on your self-history, you are not some poor misguided soul who needs to return to the bosom of his noble brethren at the defense bar (and such folks exist, though the blogosphere sometimes makes it hard to believe). You seem to be a craven, lazy and whiny individual who wants maximum benefit for minimal effort. You willingly, daily, betray your supposed principles for lucre. That's bad mojo especially in a prosecutor. Frankly that attitude won't take you far as a defense attorney either-- at least not as one worthy of respect. Get thee hence, anonymous coward. You dishonor both your current position and lawyers as a whole. Hey Mirriam-- be careful how broad a brush you use please.

  7. Mr. Mantei,

    I speak from my own experience. My brush is as broad as it needs to be. If I'm mistaken, let me know and I'm happy to reassess.

  8. Anonymous3:34 PM

    Mirriam-- you are mistaken.

  9. disgruntledprosecutor11:57 PM

    Brian, I appreciate your insight and the words of some of the commenters. When I do return to criminal defense work, I can tell you that reading your blog was a big reason that I started questioning who I am and what I want to do with my legal career and I just wanted to say thank you.

    To Rich Mantei:

    “Thief … craven … lazy … whiny … coward.”

    Those are some pretty loaded words you used there my friend. My e-mail to Brian clearly touched some raw nerve within you. Sounds to me like you may benefit from some anger management counseling.

    Next time you look in he mirror, ask yourself why you would blow up like that about a man you’ve never met and about whom you know nothing.

    The big hearted, open-minded person in me thinks that sitting down, having a drink with you and chatting about our experiences as lawyers, would probably go a long way in helping me sort through some of the issues that are swirling around in my head.

    On the other hand, you came across as such a hateful, rage filled douche bag that I hope our paths never cross.

  10. Anonymous7:39 PM

    Are public defenders paid the same as prosecutors in your jurisdiction? If so, then why not just keep the civil service benefits and go to the side of the aisle you are more comfortable on? Make $100,000 per year as a public defender instead. In my jurisdiction people tend more often to start as prosecutors and then become defense counsel for an INCREASED income. For all my criticism of defense lawyers, someone does have to keep the system at least semi-honest.

  11. Anonymous12:56 PM

    Maybe it's just my inexperience talking, but I'm in a prosecutor's office and consider myself defense-minded but in no way disgruntled. Granted, I'm not yet an actual prosecutor, just someone who is waiting for his bar results.

    That said, there are many defense-minded prosecutors in my office, including the head honcho. I'm of the opinion that a good prosecutor is one who doesn't enjoy his job, but rather does it out of a sense of duty. Obviously, good criminal defense attorneys are also driven by a sense of duty, but they are free to relish in it.

    Maybe things are different in poorly run offices, but where I work cops who blow cases are told that they blew the case (or that there was no case to begin with). We don't try to get access to what is properly privileged information (as I have read of being done in other blawgs), and in fact a higher-up recently reminded the office that just because we can do something doesn't mean we should. And no, this is not some small town, nor is it an office with a low conviction rate.

    Maybe things are different for the feds, and I have been told of other jurisdictions in my state that are in fact different, but the office I'm in does a pretty good job at getting criminals punished without doing anything that would make a Constitution-loving person cringe.

    Perhaps the disgruntled prosecutor should find a nearby jurisdiction that is more scrupulous, or he should just do his job the way he thinks it should be done until his superiors tell him to do otherwise. I'd think by that point he'd have earned enough respect among the defense bar to ease the transition back to the other side.

    I've tried to learn as much as I can from the older members of both the prosecution and defense bars, and one thing they have all told me is that playing games won't do anything for justice, the state, or my career. I realize this is all easy for me to say, but I still think it worth saying.