Everything You Wanted to Know About Criminal Lawyers

Criminal lawyers have a bad rap. For starters, we’re not actually “criminal lawyers” but rather “criminal defense attorneys” or “criminal defense lawyers.” Being a lawyer in itself isn’t a crime, and representing someone accused of criminal wrongdoing isn’t a crime. Nevertheless, the most common question we are asked is, “How can you defend those people?” The implication of course being that our clients are guilty, and we are helping them get away with their crimes. We’re co-conspirators. Or helping them get away with it. It’s a common misconception. Also, it doesn’t help that most of the time, are clients are guilty of something. But than again, isn’t everyone?

Everything You Wanted to Know About Criminal Lawyers

How Do You Defend Those People?

Chances are, you committed an unlawful act today. At some point, you violated Federal or State law. It’s almost a certainty. Given the incredible breadth of state statutes, federal statutes, and all the state and federal administrative rules, it’s almost impossible to function without breaking the law. Now, when you break a criminal law, that’s when you can be accused of a crime.

Why Are Criminal Lawyers Important?

Criminal justice and criminal procedure are different all over the world. In the United States, there is a strong presumption of innocence. Also, our criminal justice system has taken unique approach to protecting the rights of those accused. The right to remain silent, the right to an attorney, the right to an appointed attorney (often at no expense to the accused), the right to a speedy trial, the right to see, hear, and cross-examine witnesses, and the right to a jury trial are rights somewhat unique to this country.

As one of my colleagues once paraphrased, our system of justice has decided that– even if there are millions of people who’d like to see you hang– we’re going to give you one person to defend you, to protect your rights, and to argue things from your perspective and on your behalf. It’s a very gladiator-like theme. Indeed, many defense attorneys compare themselves to Roman gladiators, hired guns, and old-west gunslingers.

How Many Criminal Lawyers Are There in the United States?

Curiously, no one really knows. There aren’t any good statistics on this. Even the American Bar Association (ABA), doesn’t provide a breakdown of practice areas nationally. The ABA indicates that in 2017, there are approximately 1,3 million attorneys in the U.S., and it’s probably safe to assume that about half of those attorneys are full-time or part-time criminal lawyers. The reason for that assumption is that there are two criminal justice lawyers for every criminal case: a prosecutor (the person who represents the government) and a defense attorney (the person who represents the accused). Furthermore, most courthouses have about an even split between the criminal and civil dockets.

One reason that it’s difficult to pin down the number of criminal attorneys in the U.S. is also because many attorneys have changing practice areas. For example, an attorney who picks up a criminal defense case once per year– even though he really focuses mainly on family law cases– could fall into the category of a “criminal defense lawyer” or perhaps not.

Are Criminal Lawyers Bad? Are they Evil?

Far from it. They perform a vital function in ensuring balance and fairness in the American legal system. On an individual level, they have a difficult if not often impossible job, put themselves out in front of the public for attack and ridicule, and often perform thankless work for the benefit of the most underprivileged elements in American society. However, as in any job or industry, there are good examples and bad examples. There are ethical criminal lawyers and unethical lawyers just as there ethical police officers and unethical police officers. Also, many people misunderstand that actions taken by criminal defense attorneys are simply part of the job.

For example, in trial, criminal lawyers may discredit witnesses by asking very tough questions. This can lead to an appearance of callousness or “evil” when– for example– challenging a rape victim or other vulnerable victim. They may also ask very pointed questions of law enforcement and pick apart mistakes they made in their investigations. This is part of the job, yet many people are quick to anger when police are questioned. Lastly, it is the job of criminal lawyers to create reasonable doubt in the mind of the fact-finder if possible, whether that’s a judge or jury. Perhaps to mitigate or even create sympathy for defendants convicted of a crime who are facing sentencing. Taking the side of the accused is often seen as distasteful, but it’s part of the job. It’s simply good advocacy– and it’s required of the attorney.

Why Be A Criminal Lawyer?

This is a very philosophical question. There are many possible answers. Here are just a few:

  • Justice is important to you.
  • Fairness is important to you.
  • You enjoy rooting– and working for– the underdog.
  • Arguing is something you actually enjoy. Debate is something you’re good at.
  • But more importantly, you like helping people. You see the best in them. They are redeemable in your eyes. You believe people can make mistakes, be rehabilitated, be forgiven, and become better.

Why Hire A Criminal Lawyer?

The government has accused you of a crime. You’re going to need help. You’ll need someone on your side. Someone to counsel you as to how the law applies to the facts of your case. Someone who understands how the legal system works, someone familiar with the criminal justice system and it’s procedures, someone familiar with effective defenses, and someone who can help negotiate an acceptable plea deal if that’s the route you decide to take.

How Much Does a Criminal Lawyer Cost? How Much Do They Charge?

Compared with other attorneys, criminal lawyers charge a lower hourly rate. They make less than other attorneys with similar backgrounds and levels of experience. For example, corporate lawyers, business lawyers, and in-house legal counsel are typically the highest-paid attorneys in the country. The overwhelming majority of criminal defense lawyers in the U.S. are public defenders. They make the least amount of money, among attorneys.

Are Criminal Lawyers Expensive?

It depends. For example, public defenders cost little to nothing because they are court-appointed at no cost. On the other hand, privately retained attorneys are relatively expensive. The best private defense attorneys are often very expensive if retained for serious charges. For example, cases involving serious penalties, it makes sense that there would be far more work and attention to detail.

How Do Criminal Lawyers Win Cases?

They start with the facts. In other words, do the facts constitution a crime. Then, criminal attorneys look to see if the elements of the crime can be proven. Following this, an attorney might look to see if there are defenses. Alibi or wrong identity? Lack of motive? Lack of intent or required mental element? Entrapment? Self-defense? Choice of evils?

Who is the Best Criminal Lawyer?

Wouldn’t you know, that’s a subject of some debate among defense lawyers! In fact, with Internet marketing, the level of boasting has become almost unbearable. However, the answer to this question largely comes down to how you define the “best.” The most acquittals or wins at trial? The best plea deals? The most celebrity clients or the most famous clients? Or the defense for the most serious and egregious crimes (e.g. the Nuremberg trials for war crimes)? On a practical level, the best criminal lawyer who gets the result the client ultimately wants. For more on this topic, read our article, “The best criminal defense attorney in Oregon?

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