Thanks for this thread. It's one of the more interesting and informative ones on this website.
You talk a lot about picking up all the legal aid work you can get. What are your thoughts on catering your practice towards crimes that might snag you some wealthier clientele? Have you noticed any trends among your cash-paying clients?
I'd imagine the areas of criminal defense which tend to be indiscriminate to social class would be impaired's, sex crimes, professional discipline (Police Services Act, Nurses, Physicians, Lawyers, Accountants, etc.) Do you think these areas could be more reliable in terms of financial security?
In my experience:
Impaired clients often do have cash to spend.
Sex crimes - it depends - some do, some don't.
Professional discipline - not dealt with in the criminal courts and is a niche area of practice.
Other areas where people may have money:
I have a mix of legal aid and cash - maybe half and half? I like having a mix. Legal Aid provides some certainty that you will get paid. It also tends to provide more interesting and advanced cases. I just did my first murder on Legal Aid, and I can't imagine that I would be likely to get a murder on cash for some time. I actually don't enjoy impaired cases much, and only do them for the money. Cash however pays better and isn't subject to the government's whim like Legal Aid is.
The thing with cash is, as others have said, you earn it. You're not entitled to it and you don't just start getting it. You have to balance your expectations. The people with large amounts to spend are usually sophisticated enough to know who the really great lawyers are. If they're spending a bundle, they want to spend it on Marie Henein, not me, alas. My cash targets are the people who don't qualify for Legal Aid but have jobs and they can scrape together a few hundred a month for me and borrow a bit so by the time of trial, a decent amount is in. Or the people who are aware they can't afford Henein and are willing to pay less for someone decent recommended by someone else.
Most of my cash clients are referrals from other lawyers who have liked my work, or friends who practise in other fields, or people who read about a case I did in the news, or friends of friends - in other words, it comes through networking and reputation over time. I haven't found advertising etc. to be particularly effective. The more sophisticated clients can tell if someone is inexperienced and trying to talk themselves up. The unsophisticated ones will take anyone who happens to be in the right place at the right time.
You can't really "cater your practice" to anything in the first few years - you're just learning, building skills, building your reputation and trying to become competent in as uch as you can. Specializing is really for someone much further out who has the experience and the means to do that. I would love to be known as a "drug lawyer" but it takes time and a looooot of drug cases to get there.