By Eric Rice
For me, criminal law is the reason I went to law school. I love the substance and practice. Unlike the corporate litigation I practiced, criminal defense brings clients with an interesting array of problems that I help solve while practicing in court. Instead of throwing a lot of paper back and forth, I spend time in a courtroom working with a prosecutor and judge to resolve cases.
Unfortunately, the economic downturn has made getting a start in criminal defense more difficult than in the past. Traditional avenues of getting a start aren’t available anymore: public defenders are facing budget crises, many practitioners can’t take on new and untrained lawyers, and there is a smaller pool of clients able to pay for services. So, if you’re looking to break into criminal law — whether as a new part of an existing practice or a full-time endeavor — where should you begin?
Go to court
Unlike civil litigation, most criminal work happens in a courtroom. So, why not go where the action is and see how other lawyers handle their cases? Most courthouses have morning and afternoon sessions where a variety of criminal cases are handled in a large group. These sessions are a great opportunity to see a variety of lawyers handle many issues and cases. Start by checking out the docket board, usually found in the courtroom lobby, and check where general criminal matters are being held.
You can learn a lot from just sitting watching these proceedings, since most of the work is done in open court. In addition, the judge and prosecutor will often give basic info about the proceedings for the sake of pro se defendants.
So, pick a court, find a general criminal session, and go see what we do on a daily basis.
Take a Lawyer out to Lunch — or Coffee
Another effective way to learn is to network with current criminal lawyers. When I transitioned from civil to criminal law, I made it a point to talk to at least 2 criminal lawyers a week to find out how they practiced and which ones could be resources as my practice developed. By talking with these lawyers, I learned about different styles of practicing and managing a law office. Their help was indispensable during the formation of my own practice, and I still check with other criminal lawyers about case and law office management issues.
I suggest that you reach out to criminal lawyers in your network and ask if they’ll talk with you about their practice. Every lawyer I reached out to was very friendly and accommodating and offered their perspective on their practice. Now that I have established my own practice, I have met with a number of others looking to start their own criminal or solo practices. I enjoy passing along the knowledge that I’ve learned and helping establish a robust criminal bar in Minnesota [if you're looking for someone to find out more about criminal or solo firm issues, feel free to drop me an email at email@example.com].
So, make some room on your calendars, find some criminal lawyers to get a foot into the community, and invite them to lunch. It’s an easy and helpful way to get more info and make a connection.
Seek Out Opportunities to Learn and Practice
Finally, you can jump into criminal practice by finding opportunities to develop your own skills. Criminal practice isn’t designed to be difficult or hard to get into, but it does require knowledge of specific terms and procedures. Attend some CLEs that discuss basic criminal issues to learn about the practice, and use them to network with other criminal lawyers who attend. Don’t be afraid to introduce yourself to others at your table. For me, CLEs have been a great way to put names to faces and personally introduce myself to other lawyers that have been helpful in building my practice. Not to mention, the CLE itself often provides helpful information and provides a great starting point to learn about criminal practice.
Pro bono work also provides a great way to develop skills and learn criminal practice. Seek out various pro bono organizations in town and volunteer some time, while letting them know you’re interested in learning criminal law. It’s a great way to learn and help those in need of legal assistance.
Criminal law provides an interesting opportunity to get out of your office and into court. It is a great way to develop skills, whether as a supplement to other practice areas or as your specialty. If you ever want to chat, are looking for ideas, or have some to contribute, send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Good luck!