I have been practicing law for some time now.
I love it in many ways. I really enjoy helping clients and making a difference in their lives. I also enjoy both the "combative" and "persuasive" aspects of litigation. Many of the tactics and strategies that I learned about as a young boy playing chess and military strategy games, as well as from the myriad of books that I have read, have all been put to good use through the practice of law.
Even if we lived in some sort of utopian socialist society, where everybody made the same amount of money, I would still choose to be a trial attorney, because its what I truly love to do. If I was independently wealthy I would even do it for free.
What I hate most about the profession are the economics of modern law firms, as well as the personalities that are drawn to it.
I like trials and trying cases. Clients like this, too. They want to know that their attorney is willing to go the distance for them. But senior partners often don't want trials, especially in small criminal defense firms, even if the client is willing to pay. Apparantly, the firms lose money from having their lawyers handling a trial for 6-8 hours for a couple of days straight (sometimes trials can be finished in a day, sometimes they take many days to finish). The senior partners often feel that the attorney should be out "hustling" and making rain for the firm, rather than wasting his time on a trial, when the money has already been made. In such cases, the younger lawyer is often admonished to "plead the fucker out" even if the young lawyer is totally convinced that the criminal defendant is innocent. Sometimes, its hard to turn down a good plea bargain, especially if probation is offered. But then again, a guilty plea is a guilty plea and there are long-lasting consequences to having a criminal record.
The thing is, there are some old, grizzled, seasoned criminal defense attorneys that are jaded and worn-out. They habitually think that most of their clients are guilty and they don't want to go the extra mile to defend them. They've heard all the excuses and justifications put forth by the accused a million times before, and they just don't care anymore.
The plea-bargaining aspect of criminal law is something I am still coming to grips with. On the one hand, its a great way to dispose of cases quickly and neatly, especially if both sides are willing to come to the table and bargain. If your client is guilty, and the prosecutor doesn't want to waste time, you can often work out some sort of amicable arrangement, such as probation with house-arrest with a GPS bracelet, the ability to go shopping, to church, to work, etc...Its almost like they aren't arrested. The options available to a skilled attorney in criminal defense negotiations are many. The other benefit is that if the criminal defense attorney has a set, flat, pre-indictment billing rate, and he's able to settle the case by way of plea before the grand jury meets, he's able to make a lot of money off of a case, with very little effort, relatively speaking.
On the other hand, some firms don't like it when the case can't "plea out" early. This means they have to keep going to court and that the case may drag out. I, personally, have no problem with this. I want to have the reputation of being someone who will fight for my clients. Being a young, relatively new lawyer, my reputation is very important to me. I want to make a name for myself. On the other hand, there are firms that absolutely detest going to trial and they put pressure on younger lawyers to put pressure on the clients to take a plea deal. Granted, there are cases where clients delude themselves into thinking that they have strong chances of prevailing at trial, despite the overwhelming evidence against them (multiple eyewitnesses, videotaped confession), the fact that they are a career criminal, violated probation 10 days after they were let out of jail for their last offense and the fact that you were able to get their newer, first degree charge with a 20 year incarceration rate knocked down to a 3rd degree charge with a 3 year flat jail term. This is an ideal plea bargain that the client should, ideally, take.
That said, I don't feel comfortable "strong arming" clients into taking deals. Their future and their lives are ultimately their own. They have to live with the consequences of their actions. Sure, they hired "the firm" to represent them, but I also have ethical responsibilities as a lawyer, and one of them is to ensure that my clients are treated fairly. I can't in good conscience persuade a client to make a legal choice, based on the firm's selfish economic interests. I don't think that's right.
And the thing is, I see this all the time. More than one firm I have worked for has engaged in this sort of thing. I wonder how widespread it is? The last firm I was in wanted me to plea a guy out to a 3rd offense DWI, knowing it would have a jail term, even though they could have avoided it by "knocking out" the prior DWI convictions, by getting the proper discovery documents and showing the judge that the prior guilty pleas were made without counsel. They client paid good money for the representation, but the senior partner at that firm ran the place like McDonald's and didn't want to do more work than was needed. I left the firm, but the new guy who replaced me pled the guy out to a 3rd offense and he went to jail. Its something that could have been avoided, I think.
But that's the thing I see all the time. So many firms running "plea bargain mills" so to speak. Its like assembly-line justice. They handle clients on a volume basis and they plea everybody out, so they don't have to do much work. This way, the senior partners can make a killing and live like kings, meanwhile the clients get a version of "Mc-Justice," and the associates and new lawyers working for them are exploited and treated like slaves.
I see the "profits" of the legal profession diminishing rapidly. But then again, profits are relative things and many of the top notch lawyers out there have incurred massively unsustainable standards of living that they really can't maintain in the new economy.
They are being kept afloat by their prior investments and savings as well as a new wave of poor law school graduates without prospects who are willing to work for a pittance. Sure, there is alot going around in the media right now about how law schools are being sued and how JDs aren't making money. Apparantly its a "big crisis." Realistically, though, its a boon to the law firms. Its a recession and the influx of super-poor, indebted young lawyers willing to work for nothing enables the nation's law firms to stay afloat.
That said, eventually these kids will learn the ropes and will be willing and able to do the same job they are currently doing, but for a fraction of the price charged by their current masters. Who needs to live in a mansion? I'm happy with a simple middle class existence.
Any way you look at it, I see a connection between low-pay, the break-down of the criminal justice system and the emergence of these "plea bargain mills" throughout the country.
Back in the day, law firms were small, high quality cottage industries, so to speak. Many lawyers I meet say its impossible to practice law in this manner today (of course, every lawyer who says this to me lives in a HUGE house and drives a very expensive car).
I wonder if this just means that they are low quality, or if it is genuinely impossible to give out decent legal services for an affordable price?