Criminal defense lawyers spend their days attending court, getting ready to attend court, consulting with potential clients, preparing for trial, and trying cases.
I was an attorney handling criminal cases for nearly ten years.
Here’s what my life looked like on a day to day basis.
What Does A Criminal Lawyer Do On A Daily Basis? (EXPLAINED)
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Criminal Law Practices Are BUSY
There some kinds of law practices which are very regular and routine.
Criminal law is not that type of practice.
Because each case is a little different, and the clients are very different from each other, the day in the life of a criminal defense attorney is almost never the same.
The main difference in daily patterns has to do with whether or not the attorney has an imminent trial.
If there’s a trial coming up, and it looks like the “trial is going to go” (meaning the trial is going to happen), then there is a flurry of activity focused on the preparation.
But if there’s no imminent trial, then…
I usually arrived at the office between 7:00am and 7:30am, before my assistant or office staff arrived to open up the office and turn on the phones at 8:00am.
I’d get coffee and then sit down to look at my email, primarily to see if anything messy or extremely urgent had been delivered since I left the office the night before.
I didn’t look at my work email all night, as it did bad things for my family and getting to sleep.
Then I’d check my schedule for the day, which is meticulously managed by me and my assistant, as criminal practices can be so busy that things get lost of forgotten.
Most criminal defense lawyers appear regularly in court in the mornings for simple hearings such as arraignments (the first initial appearances).
Getting to the office before 7:30am gave me a chance to drink my coffee, make sure the pile of files needed for court were the right ones, and that they contained all the documents necessary, and to get ready for the morning hearings.
Sometimes this meant refreshing my recollection about the client’s case, or making sure that we had all the necessary forms printed and filled out and ready to be presented to the court.
My assistant would come in close to 8:00am, and we’d double check the files.
Then I’d load everything up in my briefcase, put on my suit jacket, and walk over to court.
In the court I worked in, criminal arraignments (out of custody) were held at 8:30am.
I’d get there by 8:15am, so I could meet with my client(s) before court.
Sometimes I would have only one client on the docket for the arraignment hearings, and sometimes there would be more than one.
I’d use any time with the client in advance of the doors opening for the arraignments to check to make sure he was comfortable, that he knew what was about to happen, that he knew what I was going to do and say, and to make sure he had no questions.
Then we’d go in and sit, and wait for the judge to come in to start the hearings.
Sometimes morning hearings go quickly, and sometimes you sit for hours, depending on the court.
Maybe I’d be out of arraignments by 8:30am, and sometimes it would be 10:00am.
Once morning appearances were over, I’d return to my office to take up the next appointment on my schedule, or prepare for afternoon court appearances.
Sometimes the other appearances of the day were plea hearings, sentencing hearings, or motion hearings.
Sometimes I had to go over to the jail to do an in-custody hearing (meaning the client was still in jail).
In general, almost every day, I would have a phone call or in person consultation with a potential client.
Sometimes many calls or consults.
Sometimes people would call in for the first time to schedule a consult and I would be passed the client to vet them on the spot, to try and land a good case (best service possible!)
Other calls or conferences in the day could be with investigators to work on a case, with experts to work on a case, or to talk to witnesses of other people involved in the case.
Depending on the hearing schedule, I might go to court again in the afternoon.
As a defense lawyer, I found it very handy to have an office close to the courthouse, as I could easily go back and forth to attend short hearings without having to find parking or lose a lot in drive time.
The day would usually continue in a flurry of phone calls, consults, or court appearances until 5:00pm, when the phones shut down for the night.
After staff closed the office, I’d stay at my desk and do the work that needed to be done without interruption.
I’d write motions or other pleadings.
I’d do legal research.
I’d handle long phone calls that I couldn’t get to.
In fact, I’d use that time to return every single phone call I’d received during the day (never let the sun set on a phone call).
Usually, I’d say at the office until at least 7:00pm, and then go home to have dinner.
You’ll notice that I didn’t have a lunch break in this day, or take breaks to work out or do other activities.
When I was a defense lawyer, my office was a very busy one, and there wasn’t much time or room for anything else.
If There Was Trial Coming….
If trial was imminent, the daily schedule was very different.
If trial was coming, all calls or conferences were limited to ones related to the case.
Court appearances were handled by other associates in the office.
Pretty much everything was put aside to make sure that everything was made ready.
I’d spend the day at the computer, preparing all motions necessary, jury instructions, opening and closing arguments, direct examination and cross examination questions, lining up witnesses, preparing evidence to be presented, voir dire questions, and more.
I’d meet with witnesses and experts in my office, and rehearse our presentations.
I’d talk to the client and help him feel comfortable.
I’d also talk to opposing counsel to see what we could agree on in advance to make things go more quickly.
Essentially, every hour of trial takes 3-4 hours of preparation. Thus I’d start at 7:00am and go until I was too tired to work, whatever it takes.
There’s no excuse with trial if you aren’t ready.
Retained Counsel vs Appointed Counsel
There are definitely some differences between private retained defense attorneys and court appointed attorneys.
Court appointed attorneys have many defense clients, while retained attorneys have only a handful at a time.
Court appointed lawyers spend most of their days at court, and very little at their offices.
They could have 10 or more clients on the arraignment dockets, as well as on the status check or disposition dockets.
Each of these clients needs their attorney to talk to them, and help them.
Most of that work is done at the courthouse, before or after court, instead of over the phone or in the attorney’s office.
But in general, both retained and appointed attorneys in a criminal law practice spend their days in a flurry of trying to get ready for court, and going to court.
How much time is spent really depends on the lawyer, both in experience and in interest.
Experienced lawyers do not need as much time to get ready for things like voir dire or closing arguments, as they have done it countless times.
Some attorneys are less interested in trying hard at any level of experience, and the hours invested will reflect that.
Either way, for a criminal defense attorney, every single days is different in some way.
Understanding The Attorney’s Day Can Help Clients
Criminal defense attorneys are often in court and unable to respond to emails or calls.
They are giving 100% of their attention to their clients.
This can make other clients and attorneys angry.
They feel ignored or brushed off.
Most attorneys do not mean to be bad about returning phone calls.
In many cases, their schedules are just too crammed full of events that make it impossible to take or return phone calls.
As a client, it can be annoying or stressful that their chosen attorney is not available.
But in some ways, they should be glad that their chosen counsel is in the courtroom a lot, going to battle a lot.
Those sharp skills will be an advantage for the client whose case could eventually end up in front of a judge or jury.
And if your criminal defense lawyer in sitting in his or her office all day, every day?
Maybe you should wonder why he or she isn’t in court.
Want to learn more about your criminal justice system?
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