Wednesday, April 28, 2010

The Cause Of The Defenseless Or Oppressed - 15 Years Later

I will never reject, from any consideration personal to myself, the cause of the defenseless or oppressed

- Oath of Admission to the Florida Bar

On the evening of April 28, 1995, I entered the courtroom of the Honorable Stanford Blake to be sworn in as a Member of the Florida Bar. I first met Judge Blake when he was criminal defense lawyer Stan Blake, and I was his 19 year old client. The irony was apparent.

I had already been working at the public defender's office for 5 months under the certified legal intern program, but from this moment on I would be official. I could "talk in court" without the supervision of another lawyer.

Fifteen years is not 20 years, it's not 40 years, not a half century of practice, but it's 15 years, a decade and a half of practicing criminal defense law. I think it's something to talk about.

Fifteen years ago after graduating from the only law school to which I was accepted, I took the only job offer I wanted, to become an assistant public defender. I went to law school to become a criminal defense lawyer.

My salary - $28,000. After passing the Bar, I would receive a raise to $32,500.

I began in the county court division - DUIs, misdemeanors, homeless clients, drunks, and minor screw-ups. I learned everything I could about DUI, tried as many cases as I could, and did that for 18 months. It was there I had my first high-profile case representing a Santeria Priest who was charged with animal cruelty resulting from a videotaped ceremony.

It was there I learned that no evidence can result in a conviction, if the arrest is on Christmas Eve and a juror says "well, we just thought if someone was arrested on Christmas Eve, the cop must have thought they were really guilty." I also learned there that overwhelming evidence, that of a seriously drunk guy who hits a pole on a sidewalk and then pisses all over himself, can be acquitted if the jury "thought the cop was arrogant."

After 18 months, it was off to Juvenile.

I went kicking and screaming. I left after 8 months and 3 weeks. I hated it. I hated the parents who enabled and made excuses for their kids, and I hated the notion that there was something wrong with every kid, other than they were just being kids by getting into fights and doing stupid things.

After my stint in Juvenile, I went to "felonies." I tried some cases as a "C" lawyer, and then started to think about how long I would stay in the office. I didn't want to do death penalty work, and I really didn't see the benefit to staying more than 3 years. I loved the job, I just became a little bored and wanted the challenge of learning how to be a private lawyer.

While my salary was about to be raised to $39,000, I was offered a job at a DUI boutique for $50,000. I took it, and spent 9 months there. I learned how to run a business, and how not to run a business. I learned I didn't want to just do DUI work. We need those lawyers, lawyers who are experts in a particular crime, but it wasn't for me.

I quit. I had no money. I had the car they leased me, a new townhouse, and $10,000 coming in from court appointed cases.

I had made friends with a partnership of 20-year criminal defense lawyers who offered me a free office, free desk, and free computer. My P.A. was born.

These guys referred me their "junk" and taught me how to practice in federal court. They became mentors in all aspects of my life.

After 5 years I wanted to start a small firm. I got some furnished space, and my firm was born. After a year, we left and rented the space we are currently in, and the rest is history.

I've experienced every high and low of private practice, times when the phone didn't ring for weeks, good clients, great clients, nightmare clients, good judges, terrible judges, outstanding lawyers, awful lawyers, fascinating cases, and not so fascinating cases that became fascinating as the case proceeded.

Do I miss working at the PD's office? Everyday. Best job I ever had.

What have I learned in 15 years of practicing law?

[1] I love what I do. I could not imagine doing anything else but defending those in trouble, criminally, or before the Bar.

[2] You can make money as a criminal defense lawyer. You can make money doing anything you love. What matters is that you do it well, and that your clients see your commitment to your chosen practice area. There are criminal defense lawyers, and lawyers who take criminal cases. The difference is immense.

[3] One word of mouth referral is worth a year in the yellow pages, in-your-face Facebook Ads, and mailers to homes of those arrested.

[4] If you have decided the type of lawyer you want to be, it doesn't matter what anyone else thinks. Those that handle traffic tickets with zeal and professionalism deserve the same respect as a lawyer who handles complex "bet-the-company" litigation. Anyone who advocates for a client and does it well, is a lawyer deserving of respect.

[5] No case or client is worth your reputation.

[6] Honesty that hurts your position, is the best kind.

[7] Hearing that a judge is a bad judge never matters, unless you hear it 3 times, from 3 different people.

[8] Most lawyers are unhappy, because they are not practicing in an area that inspires them.

[9] Your reputation as a lawyer can be cemented within 90 days of admission to the Bar.

[10] If you are in private practice, work on your business, and not just in your business. There are people out there, go meet them.

[11] The length of time someone has been a lawyer has no bearing on their skills, ethics, or reputation, unless proven otherwise.

[12] A phone call is always better than a letter.

[13] There are 3 places where cases are resolved - counsel table, conference tables, and restaurant tables. Use them all.

[14] As to #13, weakness is not shown by breaking bread with opposing counsel.

[15] Never lie.

[16] If you burn a bridge, make sure you burn it to the point that it is unrecognizable, otherwise, expect it to come back to bite you. It will.

[17] Some people don't matter. Never treat them like they don't matter.

[18] Most people you deal with have either a family, a child, a personal issue, or something else that makes them just like you. If you need me to explain the relevance of this, just move on to...

[19] Your obligation is to the Bar rules first, and your client second. If you reverse that, you won't need to worry about it.

[20] People hate lawyers, think they are greedy, and don't respect them. That will never change. Don't waste your time trying to convince society otherwise. Spend your time convincing your client through your work that they shouldn't hate lawyers, lawyers aren't greedy, and lawyers deserve respect.

[21] The best case, is the one you don't take.

[22] "Money's not a problem," is never true. If money is not a problem, you won't hear that statement.

[23] Don't ever practice law at the level of your sleazy opponent.

[24] Immediately cease using the word "immediately," in correspondence with other lawyers.

[25] Threats are worthless.

[26] Take every opportunity you can to teach a young lawyer something, regardless of their response.

[27] If you have a bad feeling about taking a case, don't.

[28] If you are asked to be the second lawyer and you agree with the work lawyer #1 has done, don't.

[29] Never take a case from a friend.

[30] Never bad mouth the competition, even if they deserve it.

[31] If you want to be a lawyer that makes good money, gets good clients, and does great work, then dress like you are a lawyer that makes good money, gets good clients, and does great work.

[32] Remember that what your client told you, with nothing more, is what your client told you.

[33] A client who won't tell you the truth, should be fired.

[34] Some of the best lawyers, you've never heard of.

[35] The people you walk by and ignore, notice.

[36] People who want you to represent them, and will scrimp and save to retain you, are better people than those who think they own you for what they wrote a check.

[37] Always make time for a colleague who needs advice, and asks you for that advice.

[38] Never say "same shit, different day." I hate that.

[39] You never know where your next case is coming from, or who can afford your fee.

[40] Those who insisted I "just don't go into criminal law," I'm laughing at you.

[41] There are cases you are not right for, admit it.

[42] The best advice I've received on case theories, is from non-lawyers.

[43] Many lawyers follow none of these "rules" I've listed.

[44] As long as students enter law school to obtain a ticket to a job, our profession will dwindle into nothing but a trade.

[45] As Larry Pozner, Past President of NACDL said once - you make your worst decisions when business is slow.

[46] When business is slow, get the hell out of the office.

[47] The best way to get to know your client, is to get to know his family.

[48] Never object to a continuance for a family issue, or a vacation. Never.

[49] In court, always let someone go before you if they ask. You'll ask one day too.

[50] Speaking and writing is a better advertisement than your angry photo next to the words "aggressive," and "Available 24/7."

[51] Most "white collar" cases, are boring.

[52] A $250,000 case is not 25 times better than a $10,000 case

[53] Whenever you argue with a non-lawyer, they will tell you to "stop cross-examining" them, and that they are "not on trial."

[54] I have no interest in judges who are "nice off the bench."

[55] Lawyers who brag they "don't go on vacations," are miserable human beings that I never want to deal with on any level.

[56] There are three reasons people hate lawyers: Advertising, the perception that they charge too much and make a lot of money, and they sometimes win.

[57] Most people think a judge's job is to "keep bad guys in jail."

[58] There are 3 types of conversations not worth having: one that is from a potential client who thinks hiring a lawyer will make them "look guilty," one from the girlfriend, wife, sister, other family member, or friend of someone who was arrested and is not in jail, and one from a marketer who wants to help take your practice "to the next level."

[59] Payment plans, will consume you.

[60] Regardless of what others think of what you do, remember, there are three branches of government, you're an officer of one of them. Pretty cool.

Located in Miami, Florida, Brian Tannebaum practices Bar Admission and Discipline and Criminal Defense. He is the author of I Got A Bar Complaint.Share/Save/Bookmark


Mike Iacopino said...

Nice piece. Congratulations on 15 years of successful practice! Thank you for all you do

Carolyn Elefant said...

Happy Anniversary, Brian. You've accomplished so much in such a short period of time, and made our profession a better place. Thank you.

Carolyn Elefant

Unknown said...

Very good advice!

Josh King said...

Congrats, Brian - and this was a terrific post to mark your anniversary.

Jeff Gamso said...

Happy Anniversary. And some damn good advice.

Venkat said...

Congrats. Great post. Venkat

David V. Lorenzo said...

Happy Anniversary. Just keep being a good lawyer and your practice will get to the next level without those pain-in-the-ass marketers!

Nicole Black said...

Great post--and great advice. Congrats.

David F. Sugerman said...

Nice to take a moment and recognize where you are. Congrats are surely in order. Isn't it sad and strange that those of us who describe ourselves as happy in the practice are viewed with suspicion by many of our colleagues?

Fat Man Running said...

Happy Anniversary. A great post, and your "lessons" are fantastic...

Unknown said...

Congratulations from someone who just passed the same milestone a few weeks ago. Your love for our profession, and commitment to excellence, is inspiring.

shg said...

I suppose I should post a comment too, since this is your 15th anniversary and all. I'm considering bookmarking this post for future reference.

Anonymous said...

My starting salary at Legal Aid in NYC around the same time was $29,000. I should have joined PD Miami instead. :)

Ben Kearney said...

Brian, not bad. A few cranky points in there, which I fully expect from you.
Congratulations on 15 years.

EdinMiami said...


Good to know


James K. Rubin said...

Congratulations on 15 years. Happy to see that you have not gotten cynical ;-)

Francis Barragan said...

Some of those are very interesting for any kind of work.

Congratulations on the 15 years.

Francis Barragan

Chuck Ramsay said...

Excellent post. I'll share your advice with my associate. Congratulations on 15 years.

Jill said...

Great post. I am just starting my career, and this was very inspiring. Congrats on 15 years!

Richard Hornsby said...

So let me get this straight, in 1995 you started out at $28,000 - then how in the world did I start out at $19,000 when I graduated five years later? Life just is not fair!

Mike said...

Nice read. Thanks from a soon to be BarBri studying law studnet.

Townsend Myers said...

Brian, I don't know you, but we live at least part of our professional lives together in spirit.

17 years for me, 8 as a PD.

Your professionalism is obvious and inspiring. But you seem real. The criminal defense blog world is so full of dyed-in-the-wool "crusaders", sometimes I feel guilty for having such a practical approach to my profession. But your list reminds me that being a hard-working, dedicated, honest, and client-focused lawyer is what I am supposed to be doing... in addition to a bit of "crusading" here and there. Thanks.