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

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


  1. Anonymous1:44 PM

    I recently unsubscribed from another prominent criminal defense blog - its advice for (and rants at) young lawyers, while mostly on point, are discouraging, depressing, and repetitive - swallowing a dose of bitter medicine is one thing, but I'm not going to plumb my house for it. Anyway.

    I'm taking a 3-day break from bar prep this weekend to attend the O(regon)CDLA annual conference. Based on my experiences at previous OCDLA events, I know know this is good advice. If anything, it's at least an opportunity to catch some experienced lawyers while they are tipsy and more apt to like you.

    It's good to see some positive advice and encouragement on these internets.

  2. This is to Tim, the anon first commenter. Your name probably isn't Tim, but since you chosen to be anonymous, I don't know what your name is and have chosen to call you Tim.


    As you are studying for the bar, I assume you've just graduated law school and are about to embark on a great career as a lawyer. Given your inclination to read criminal law blogs and attend criminal law bar association conventions, I assume you want that career to be as a criminal defense lawyer.

    I can appreciate, as I'm sure every lawyer can, how you could use some encouragement given the hard times you've been hearing about the legal profession. You're already in now, and there's no backing out. It's got to be awfully depressing, with all these negative stories. Nobody likes to hear such things.

    But Tim, the depressing stories aren't there to make you feel bad. They are what they are; times are tough and problems about. The problems are getting worse and more pervasive, and no amount of Kumbaya singing is going to make your future brighter.

    If you find all the depressing news too discouraging now, how do you think you're going to feel five years from now? This is particularly true in criminal defense. I don't know whether anyone told you this before, but it's a very tough practice area. We aren't loved, and tend to be treated poorly by just about everyone, especially our clients.

    So if it's too depressing now, Tim, when you have yet to start practicing, do you think you are going to find it a happier place later?

    As for Brian's encouraging words about the FACDL, his is a particularly vital association. Not all states have associations that quite so good. I can't speak to Oregons, but I'm not too fond of New York's, and I was a board member and VP for many years.

    However, Brian is right that they are one of the few places where CDLs are treated well. They give each other awards. They pat each other on the back when they win. They cry with each other when they lose. If it's a comforting hand you need, then they can help. They sing Kumbaya in four part harmony.

    But if that's what you need, and you haven't even begun to practice law yet, then you may not find an association sufficient. You see, this is a hard life, dealing with hard problems and even harder people. If you can't do it without a chorus of Kumbaya to get you through the day, then not even a bar association and a few alcoholic beverages are going to make you happy.

    If you are looking for a happy place, Tim, criminal law is not it. This is a practice area best suited for people who can get kicked in the face, day after day, and keep coming back for more. We're a tough bunch, and we have to be to survive. It's not that we don't enjoy positive feedback. We do. But when it doesn't come, we just keep on fighting anyway. That's what it means to be a criminal defense lawyer.

    Best of luck on the bar exam, Tim, and in your career, whatever you decide to do.


  3. Anonymous6:54 PM

    Sorry, Scott -

    I should have made it more clear that even though I think your depressing new-lawyer stories are chock full of wise insight and advice. I think you're doing a genuine service for the community by exposing law students and young lawyers about the truth. I still don't like reading them all the time. You also would not like reading them all the time if you were in my position.

    I didn't come into law expecting easy money and good feelings. I spent my formative years watching my dad get shredded to pieces doing corporate defense work. I'm 33 years old. Both of my parents are lawyers. My oldest friend is a prosecutor. This is a small state and I know a lot of people. I enrolled after the economy collapsed and the job picture was clear.

    As far as criminal defense being a tough practice area? You told me all about it a couple of years ago when I first read your blog. Even though criminal defense is a better match for my skills and values than any other type practice, I didn't decide for sure to move in this direction until my first hands-on experience in law school with criminal law. As it happened, it was the cops' hands that were on me, but that's a different story for a different day.

    I spent a couple of semesters as a court-certified student with probably way too much independence, and so far I have only the most minimal experience representing clients. On my own, without anybody holding my hand or telling me how great I am, I've dealt with mean judges, problematic clients, and one profoundly life-altering mandatory minimum sentence. I can see that this won't be anything like a piece of cake, but it is sure a lot more pleasant, and challenging, and interesting, and useful than anything I ever have done or could do sitting in a cubicle or working with my hands.

    Which is only to say that I'm pretty confident that the criminal defense practice won't engender the same feelings your blog posts do.

    And the OCDLA? It seems like it's probably one of the better such associations. I've received much more constructive advice from CDLs than praise, and I don't expect that to change any time soon. I'm involved because I want to meet people and learn things that'll help me get better results for my clients, not because I want a pat on the back. I have friends and family for that.



  4. Tim,

    Then it sounds like you've got your head on straight and know what you're doing. I'm glad to hear it and sincerely wish you the best going forward.

    Sorry about the depressing stories (though they don't make up a great deal of what I write, but whatever). If every new lawyer wrote as impressive and thoughtful a response as you, I would never have to write another discouraging post.

    Best on the bar. It's easy. Even Tannebaum and I passed. Then go kick ass.


  5. Anonymous2:38 PM

    Thanks, Scott! I really appreciate it.

    - "T"