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

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Taking That Case In Norway

Until you've had it, it's the dream of every criminal defense lawyer - to get that case. The big one. The one everyone is talking about. That client - the famous one, the one everyone will be watching.

But not the one everyone hates. That's the one we don't take. The one we shy away from because we may look bad, we may get angry calls, and in today's world of marketing ourselves to death - it may affect our "brand."

Consequently, it is only the criminal defense lawyer that finds themselves in this dilemma - having to put oath of attorney above marketing and perception - having to defend the hated, despised, loathed, because it's the obligation of the profession we've chosen. We do this while other practitioners either applaud, or condemn us.

Talking Points Memo describes the events leading up to the call:

After massacring at least 76 people, most of them young members of the Norwegian Labor Party, right-wing zealot Anders Behring Breivik had a request: to be defended by Oslo lawyer Geir Lippestad.

Those following this horrific case closely know that the massacre took place at a Labor Party Youth Camp, Breivik having his issues with the Labor Party.

The story continues to the old "would a Jew defend a Nazi," or "would a African-American defend a member of the KKK,:" Breivik apparently did not know another biographical detail of his lawyer -- Lippestad is himself a member of Labor, the party whose policies of racial tolerance and multiculturalism the killer loathes.

Lippestad, a well known criminal defense lawyer in Norway, simply responded: "Someone has to do this job."

Lippestad went on to describe his thoughts and discussions leading up to his accepting the case:

"My first reaction was that this was too difficult," he said. "But then I sat down with family, friends and colleagues and we said that today is the time to think about democracy, and if I said no to this job, then I would say no to democracy.

Most of us criminal defense lawyers in America wonder what the system is like around the world. We wonder if being a criminal defense lawyer is the same in countries where they don't have a "Bill of Rights." We ask whether other countries have a Fifth Amendment. We wonder whether there are times when a lawyer has to take on a hated defendant.

Geir Lippestad didn't have to take this case. He knew that. He could of said no to the man who is currently the most hated man in the world. His agreement to represent this monster was not for the benefit of the client, but for the benefit of democracy.

Most of us will never be in this position - the thought of having to take on a case like this - to even have to consider it, scares us. We toil in "garden variety" cases and find meaning in paying the bills and getting an occasional dismissal or acquittal.

These are the moments that create lawyers. These are the moments that make websites, direct mail, and your LinkedIn account look meaningless (because they are).

I salute Geir Lippestad. I wouldn't want to be him, but I salute him.

Do you?

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/Bookmarkokdork.com rules Post to Twitter


  1. Anonymous9:05 AM

    Yes, I salute him too.

    I find it interesting to see that, even amongst Criminal Defense lawyers this is a controversial topic.

    Your friend Scott Greenfield, said, of the Levi Aron case, "the nature of the crime, being against a child, would have precluded me from taking the case in the first instance" ("Quitter", Simple Justice Blog. 22 July 2011. http://blog.simplejustice.us/2011/07/22/quitter.aspx).

    Since I am yet to become a lawyer I will refrain from judging him, however, I am not sure if this is a position I would agree with. I am not sure that I would refuse to take the case of a client who was otherwise able to retain me based upon the heinousness of the allegations against him.

    Then we have people who take the tone of your post and state that it is the obligation of a Criminal Defense lawyer to "defend the hated, despised,[and the] loathed" while "other practitioners either applaud, or condemn us".

    Although, my (hopeful) legal career is still in its gestation period, the view articulated in your post is where I am at this early stage of my path in the law.

    Lawyers are essential for the proper administration of justice and it is essential in a democratic and fair country that due process and fundamental rights are granted to everyone including (some might say especially) those that we despise. It is easy to grant human rights, constitutional protections, etc to people that we like but the real test is whether these are granted to people we hate, despise, loath and who society considers sub-human beings.

    As a tid bit to those lawyers who would not represent those based upon moral reasons to do with the nature of the allegations against the client, be thankful you don't practice in the UK where the cab-rank rule dictates that barristers and advocates "accept any work in a field in which they profess themselves competent to practise, at a court at which they normally appear and at their usual rates" (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cab-rank_rule).

  2. Why wouldn't you want to be Geir Lippestad?

  3. No wiser words have been spoken: "These are the moments that create lawyers. These are the moments that make websites, direct mail, and your LinkedIn account look meaningless (because they are)."

  4. Legalbaby raises a valid point, and one worthy of explanation. If there was no other lawyer to represent a despised defendant, then I would do so, regardless of any personal feelings I might have about the defendant or the crime.

    Fortunately, there are more than enough other attorneys willing to take the cases that I would prefer not to take such that I can pick my clients and causes, knowing that the defendant's rights will be fully protected without my involvement.

    When pushed to the extreme, our duty to assure that every defendant is properly represented kicks in. When there are others willing to take on the cause, we can make choices about who and what we wish to do.

    Hope this clears things up for you.

  5. You have to wonder how zealously Lippestad can advocate for Breivik. I would think it would be hard for a "jew to defend a Nazi", although I don't think that is a correct comparison. Perhaps Lippestad is not passionate about his political standing, which allowed him to represent this defendant.