Criminal defense attorneys are a vital part of our criminal justice system, protecting the civil rights of those accused of committing crimes. Without the defense component, people could be automatically punished at the will of those in authority. The Queen of Hearts in Alice in Wonderland who simply ordered “Off with their heads!” comes immediately to mind. But what training does a criminal defense attorney need? And what attributes does she or he have to possess to be successful?
Schooling, Degrees, and Exams
It takes hard work to become a criminal defense attorney, involving the following steps:
- Graduating college with a bachelor’s degree
- Getting a high enough score on the LSAT to be admitted to a good law school
- Completing 3 years of law school to obtain a Juris Doctor (J.D. or JD) degree
- Passing the state bar exam
Though you are considered an attorney once you have graduated law school, in order to work as a legal representative you must pass the bar in the jurisdiction in which you want to practice. Many states have reciprocal agreements with other states so that it is not always necessary to retake the bar if you decide to change locations.
Personal Attributes of a Strong Criminal Defense Attorney
Though criminal defense attorneys certainly can have different approaches to their craft and a broad range of personalities, those well-respected in their field share most of the following traits:
Strong critical thinking skills and an aptitude for logical reasoning
Criminal defense attorneys have to understand and use the building blocks of logical thinking in order to construct a convincing defense for their clients. They must also have a talent for perceiving weaknesses in the opposing attorney’s arguments in order to disarm the prosecution.
Ability to research thoroughly, organize and remember a great deal of information
It is essential that criminal defense attorneys have excellent research skills since they have to be able to back up their courtroom statements with statutes and previous legal decisions. They have to have the agility to remember not only where to look for necessary data, but what they have learned previously and what they have recently discovered. Even more demanding, they have to be able to do all this under the pressure of court schedules.
Effective oral and written communication skills
Criminal defense attorneys have to be able to draft and review court documents, legal briefs, and appeals. They also have to be fluent in legalese and common language, and able to translate between the two seamlessly since they have to communicate with other attorneys, judges, and the laypersons of the jury.
Public speaking skills/ ability to connect emotionally and persuasively with others
A criminal defense attorney has to be able to “read” her or his audience — much the way an actor, teacher, politician or religious leader does. Because the attorney’s job is to keep the crowd in her or his grasp, and because the jury is randomly chosen, this is no small feat. The defense lawyer has to learn how to find commonality among the group — a thread that will help them unite to believe in the defendant’s innocence. She or he must maintain propriety while becoming emotional enough to move juries, and sometimes judges, to tears.
Ability to think on one’s feet and restructure arguments as necessary
Though trials take place in an atmosphere of formality, new evidence may suddenly be presented and those under oath may make unexpected statements. Witnesses, plaintiffs, and even the lawyer’s own client, may accidentally or intentionally force the criminal defense attorney to make tactical changes midstream.
Ability to pace oneself
In addition to all this, a criminal defense attorney, like any public speaker, has to be sensitive to when she or he is providing enough detail to be convincing, but not so much as to bore the audience. The worst thing that can happen to a lawyer is to have his audience glaze over with disinterest. It is impossible to convince someone who is not listening to what you are saying.
Ability to behave appropriately, ethically, professionally, both in and out of court
While dress and language have changed drastically over the last few decades, criminal defense attorneys and other courtroom personnel are expected to adhere to a code more dignified than even that of the typical boardroom. Lawyers have to walk a fine line to make sure they remain worthy of respect and still relatable. They also have to monitor their own behavior outside of the courtroom since any ethical breach will be enough to dismantle their practice completely.
Criminal defense attorneys have to be flexible since one of their tasks will be plea bargaining to lesser offenses for some of their clients. As much as trials are adversarial, negotiations are an important part of the judicial process.
Strategic Problem Solving
Defending someone accused of committing a crime is a problem waiting to be solved. Criminal defense attorneys are captivated by the task of bringing this new problem to a successful resolution by applying a previously successful strategy or mapping out a new one. Because no two cases are identical, even familiar strategies have to be altered to the particular circumstances. Gifted criminal defense attorneys enjoy the challenges inherent in this process.
Being a Careful Listener
Most important, a criminal defense attorney wants to help the clients she or he serves. This help can only be provided by listening carefully and understanding fully what the accused’s situation is. It is only by forming a trusting relationship with the client that a criminal defense attorney can truly do his or her best work.