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Hegdis

So You Want To Do Criminal Defence: Hegdis's Tips and Tricks From The Other Side

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At any major city center, 20k seems low to me. I was paid quite a bit more and that was a number of years ago.

 

Your principal should reimburse you for gas if you are driving them to court (which would be weird. Most principals want the freedom of their own ride and they'll certainly own their own car). Your mileage on other files should be recorded/tracked to bill legal aid or the client, depending on who holds the purse strings.

 

A good articling principal will take you with them to watch them in action: client interviews at the correctional centre, lengthy court appearances, and networking events. They understand you will learn by watching first before doing. They'll answer your questions, review your work the first couple of times, and introduce you by name to their (your) colleagues. They'll draw ethical issues to your attention and explain how to navigate the waters. They'll acknowledge hard work and they'll be quick to identify and correct bad work or lazy habits. They'll buy lunch, tell you funny stories about the intimidating judges, and correct your pronunciation of foundational cases.

 

A good articling student shows up on time and appropriately groomed and attired. S/he keeps track of the calendar and student court appearances (minor stuff - fix dates, adjournments, etc). S/he memos the file so anyone who picks it up could review what occurred at the last appearance and what the next deadline is. S/he does not ask the principal lazy questions that s/he could find the answer to by looking it up in the Code or calling the court registry. S/he takes the initiative: asks for more work when there is time, or guidance on the work being done when necessary. The work is properly researched, properly spelled, typed and handed in on time. When the student screws up the principal is notified immediately and the student has both an apology and a proposed solution ready. And when the student meets other colleagues, s/he keeps ears open and mouth shut about any gossip going on: It's the student's place to learn the social ladder, not to gab indiscreetly about it.

 

Just for a start. :)

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Thanks for the tips Hegdis!

 

negotiating these things can be tricky.  I don't want to come off as greedy or entitled but at the same time, I'd like to get paid on par with the average articling student working in the same field, so knowing the average for major cities would be helpful to figure out if a job offer falls within that range.

 

Other than knowledge on current case law, the Code, and SCC decisions, what are some things students can do (or read) to help hit the ground running?

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Other than knowledge on current case law, the Code, and SCC decisions, what are some things students can do (or read) to help hit the ground running?

 

The above is actually a major benefit of hiring a student. Your knowledge of the case law is up to date. Ideally everyone keeps tabs on major developments in their area, but reality is typically far from ideal!

 

I recommend joining the CBA and the criminal subsection and attending as many meetings as you can. Pay attention to the issues that are discussed (the practical application of new caselaw is covered in detail) and introduce yourself to people. You don't need to take notes and you don't need to hand out cards - but you do need to get familiar with the format of legal discussions, and friendly with your colleagues as individuals.

 

If you want to make your first couple of weeks as an articled student easier, take a drive to the local courthouses and correctional institutions so you become familiar with how to get there and where the parking is and - this is critical - where the closest Timmy's is for a quick bite.

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Thanks for the tips Hegdis!

 

negotiating these things can be tricky.  I don't want to come off as greedy or entitled but at the same time, I'd like to get paid on par with the average articling student working in the same field, so knowing the average for major cities would be helpful to figure out if a job offer falls within that range.

 

Other than knowledge on current case law, the Code, and SCC decisions, what are some things students can do (or read) to help hit the ground running?

Subscribe to the Eugene Meehan SCC netletter. I also follow a number of legal news websites and legal bloggers on Twitter. Waiting in line? Check your Twitter feed for any new notable decisions.

 

Review your local court website and any practice directives issued by the courts or the Chief Justice in your jurisdiction. Learn the court schedules. Local practice and procedure is often the hardest thing to learn. It is easy enough to look up the leading SCC decision on manslaughter sentences but a book won’t tell you when bail hearings are held in Burnaby or how to arrange for an inmate to appear in court by video in Saskatoon. My experience from articling was that this is also sometimes stuff that older lawyers don’t know either. All they know is they give instructions to their assistant or the articling student and it happens. It takes some time to figure this stuff out so if you know where to find it, you’ll be that much farther ahead.  

 

Make friend with court staff and be polite to them. It never hurts to have be on good terms with court staff. At some point, you will need a favour or want something last minute.  Same goes for the assistants/paralegals in your office. You can learn a lot from them. At some point, one of them will save you from doing something super dumb. I’ve met many assistants who could have been capable lawyers.      

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$20 000 seems low to me. I was paid $40 000 to article at a criminal defence firm in a major city, and that seems to be the standard rate.

 

What qualities would you look for in a good articling principal?

 

A good articling principal will act as a mentor, take you on as second counsel for their bigger files, let you watch them or the other partners/associates in court, and give you interesting assignments like writing Charter arguments or researching sentencing law. They should also try to introduce you to other defence lawyers, Crown Prosecutors, clerks (the most important people in the courtroom) while you're following them.

 

They'll start you off with minor court stuff like docket appearances, setting dates, etc., and then as you get more experience, they'll let you do bigger stuff like bail hearings, guilty pleas, negotiating with Crown Prosecutors. Eventually you should be able to get your own clients for minor offences and cover the file from beginning to end.

 

The best way to find out what articling is going to be like is to talk to the more recent articling student. They'll give you an honest breakdown and probably provide you with a few helpful tips on how to navigate around certain personalities at the office.

 

What was the most challenging aspect of your experience?

 

The learning curve in articling is pretty steep - you learn quickly that most of what you learned in law school isn't relevant for what you do on a day to day basis. Depending on the firm, the hours can be rough: My firm had a policy that the articling student had to be in the first one in the office and the last one to leave. As the articling student and thus the lowest on the totem pole, you might be asked to be the "on-call" phone after-hours - if that's the case, don't expect a lot of sleep. Most principals will think nothing of an articling student having to run a 3 am bail hearing and then being back in the office at 7.

 

There's a lot of grunt work in articling in criminal defence - that means a lot of tasks that you don't really require 7 years of education to do - running around picking up disclosure, filing Charter notices, filing bail orders, serving witnesses.  On the plus side, I think I lost about 10 pounds due to the number of "Hey, it's 4:05 and this Charter notice needs to be filed before 4:15" when the Crown's office is a twenty minute walk away experiences. It's often stressful - depending on the number of associates at your firm, you may be required to be in 8 different docket coutrooms at the same time (and as the student, you are the last to speak), as well as two out of town courthouses.

 

By the end, you will have a much better idea of how the system really works, make a lot of networking connections, and learn a tremendous amount about criminal law. My article was brutal hour-wise (about 80 hours a week), but I learned a ton and am grateful for the experience.

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I know there's a thread suggesting students got paid around $20,000 but I'd like to hear from others to figure out if this is the norm for crim defence.

 

<snip>

 

What qualities would you look for in a good articling principal?

I didn't article in criminal defence so my advice is limited, but I can try and answer these two questions.

 

As a student, go and call up last year's students at the same firm, or students at similar sized firms in the same city. You're all in the same boat, and form my time information sharing was quite easy (in particular if asking grads from your same law school). Find out some comparables so you can negotiate from a position of strength.

 

As for a good articling principal... as a student-at-law you'll be making a huge number of docket appearances. And while you can certainly learn something from doing that, after a few months you'll have learned most of what you need to know about docket court. Try and make sure that your principal will get you involved in other matters - whether that it actually running bail hearings, conducting your own files, assisting your principal in matters, or whatever, be sure you do more than just non-stop docket court.

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Forgot to add this the last time but tips for articling:

 

As others have said, make friends with the clerks at the courthouse and the legal assistants at your office. They're the true backbone of the system, and can really save your life if you make a mistake. On the flip side, if you get off on the wrong foot with them, they can make your life miserable. Guaranteed your principal will ask for their opinion when they're deciding whether or not to hire you back.

 

Go above and beyond what your principal asks of you instead of just doing the bare minimum. Lawyers appreciate when students take their own initiative. Don't be afraid to volunteer yourself for projects, like putting together a binder on impaired case law, or offering to be second counsel on an associate's upcoming jury trial.

 

Make friends with the other crim articling students. They can be a huge help in situations such as letting you know your matter is about to be called in another courtroom, letting you know that a Crown is looking for you, appearing as your agent to stand a matter down until you get there, etc. It's also nice to have people in your life who are in the same situation you are and can understand what you're going through.

 

Network with the other defence lawyers and Crown. That way if you don't get hired on after articles, you've opened up other possibilities.

 

Err on the side of caution when it comes to things like making jokes in court and in casual social situations. Senior counsel can joke around and make flippant comments with the judge because they have enough years of experience and established a reputation with the bench that you don't have. Same goes for social situations - while yes, there'll usually be at least one senior lawyer who gets totally wasted at the Christmas party and tries to start a fistfight/pukes all over the floor - it's not a good idea to start off a career with that kind of behaviour.

 

Remember to be polite to other counsel and Crown Prosecutors. The criminal bar is a small one and gossip spreads like wildfire. Do one thing out of line - like accuse a Crown of unethical behaviour or threaten to sue for costs if they proceed - and the entire criminal bar will know in a few days.

 

Always remember that as an articling student, you're pretty much on the bottom rung (yes, below the assistants). I've seen a few articling students get cocky and treat the support staff or clerks like they've beneath them and that is definitely looked down upon. You might get asked to do what you consider demeaning tasks, like getting coffee for the partner, or driving them to the courthouse and back. That's part of the job, guaranteed that every associate and partner who articled there went through the same thing.

Edited by Cakewalk
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(Specific to Ontario)

 

I chose to revive this thread instead of starting a fresh one because my questions relate to criminal law and Hedges (as well as others) has already written some very insightful things.

 

So I’ve worked at an intensive clinic this semester and really enjoyed the criminal law files I was working on.  I was able run a trial (prepping for two more next semester)/sentencing submissions (with some contested), negotiate with crown prosecutors, etc.  I’m just about ready to take the plunge and focus all my studies on criminal law but I had a few questions I was hoping to get answered by any criminal defence lawyers out there. 

 

1.  Fees:

I really enjoy the work but can I expect many paying clients in my first few years working?  I understand that everyone can break the law but will my client base early on be made up of people with little money/ability to pay? 

 

Do you charge 3k – 7k per trial generally?  How many of these can you expect to do in the course of a year? How much can you charge for things like sentencing submissions and bail hearings?  Do you charge mostly flat fees or do you bill by the hour?  Is it realistic to make 60k – 75k as a first year call working in criminal defense?  What is the difference generally in how much you charge and how much you make (does the firm collect a big percentage)? 

 

2.  Day in the life

-Do you receive many random calls requiring immediate action (e.g. a 4am Sunday morning call from a client arrested for impaired driving)?

-Is it difficult to form relationships with prosecutors/court staff in the GTA (I go to school in a smaller province and got to know some of the prosecutors/court staff very well by the end of the semester…absolutely loved every day)?

-How many criminal files are you juggling at once (I had approximately 15 and that was quite a lot for me)?

-What is usually the earliest trial date you can get (in my province it takes approximately 4 – 5 months)?

-Did/will you eventually specialize in an area of criminal law?

 

-What do you like most about your career?  What do you like least?  If you were to start fresh as a 2L midway through law school, what would you do differently?

 

I appreciate any and all input.  If you don’t want to post, please feel free to PM me; I would love to hear from any practitioners out there!

Edited by homer

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1. Fees - depends on where you are, who you're working with (if anyone) and the law in your area.

 

Private files are generally one of three categories: 1. domestics, 2. driving law, and 3. drug dealing. White collar and blue collar clients are equally prone to domestic assault charges; but a person who has money will pay a healthy fee up front for early intervention (bail variations and the like). Your province may have driving laws that lead to criminal charges rather than administrative penalties (as in BC); if so, people who own their own vehicle can pay a lawyer to get it back. And finally, people who actually make the big deals in the drug trade make a lot of money and having a lawyer on call is part of doing business. If you get an "in" with this clientele (very different from the lower rung addicts and mules) you can build a private practise on it. This takes a reputation, which takes time.

 

Trials early on are an unknown. You could book a hundred small trials (like an hour or two) and have thirty percent of them go ahead. You could book a single six month trial that goes to plea the morning of the first day (FML). It depends on the kind of practise you build. Early on it's far more likely to be a quantity over complexity practise - so more small trials are more likely. The bulk of these are likely to be legal aid trials so you will need to depend on volume to make a living.

 

I charge almost exclusively a flat fee. In part because it simplifies everything (I hate accounting), but most of my clients prefer to know ahead of time how much it will cost. Exceptions to this are clients who want you on a continual retainer so that you can assist them and their associates when they run into trouble (bail hearings etc). In that situation you can hold a sum in trust and bill out as needed, notifying the client when the gas tank is running low and needs a refill. Another exception are high-needs clients - you see them coming. They call you four times a day and try to get legal advice on everything from their household bills to their ex girlfriend's DUI. Those clients get charged hourly, and each interaction is rounded up to fifteen minute increments. This is of course all explained ahead of time and confirmed in a lengthy, thorough retainer letter signed by both myself and the client.

 

The amount you charge depends on many factors: how long and complex the trial is, whether there are extras (bail variations, etc), and what the client can afford. 3-7k is a reasonable ballpark.

 

The amount you take home can vary wildly. Making 60-75k in your first year is reasonable. Subtract from that your overhead. Overhead is the one thing you CAN control, so keep a tight leash on it. No fancy glass walled office for you. No new car, no Canali suit, no Italian leather briefcase. Play it smart any you can take home a comfortable amount in your first year.

 

 

2. A Day In The Life: you've read this already, right? It's as accurate as I could make it.

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Hi all. First off just wanted to give some appreciation to the contributors in this thread. Some of these posts have been truly inspiring (particularly Hegdis' and Uriel's). 

 

On that note, I hope it's alright if I throw another question up here...

 

I'm curious to know if there is a certain kind of personality that is required to do criminal defence. Clearly, you need to be socially engaging, confident, and compassionate (at least, that's what I have been able to glean). But as a person who falls somewhat, but not dramatically, towards the introvert side of the spectrum (if we define it as the need to be alone in order to "recharge")-- do I have a chance at being a successful criminal defence lawyer? I'm certainly socially capable, reasonably confident, and I have my charismatic streaks-- but I'm not particularly gregarious, and while I truly do enjoy interacting with people, I would prefer at the conclusion of a day of socializing to be alone.

 

I suppose it's a pretty difficult question to answer. I'm sure I, and others like me, could do criminal defence. But I want to know if my kind of personality type would be able to thrive. And to be clear, I'm not asking you to tell me if I am going to thrive, but rather if someone with a personality like the one I described could thrive. 

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I'll contribute to this too, though I'm not exclusively in crimlaw.

 

1. Fees:

 

To add a fourth category to Hegdis' list, the young/youthful offenders, whose parents are prepared to foot the bill for their defence. Not as frequent as the first three, but I haven't had a problem getting normal, upstanding parents to keep junior's retainer full. Quasi-criminal regulatory offences (i.e. Fisheries Act) are very common in my area too, and don't generally pose problems in paying. Those, combined with Hegdis' three categories, are the primary criminal cases where you'll generally get paid by the client.

 

Unlike Hegdis, I charge by the hour. I agree that 3-7k is a good ballpark for a trial, but it depends on your hourly rate. However long you book for trial, double that, and that's about your minimum prep time.

 

If you're just starting off, DO NOT take on every single case that comes through the door. I had a rough start because I took some cases to build a bit of experience and felt as though I couldn't/shouldn't turn anyone away. Ignoring your inner warning that a person will be difficult or high maintenance, have unrealistic expectations, or have no intention to pay. Never be afraid to say no if you think a client will be more trouble than it's worth to you.

 

Your wages would depend where you're working, how big the bar is, and how well you're marketing. Smaller bar = more opportunities.

 

2. Day in the life

 

Hegdis speaks to this way better than I ever could. I won't (can't?) specialize in it in my geographic area; there aren't enough exclusively criminal clients to build a practice. But I do find it interesting. Tip for staying on top of developments from the SCC - subscribe to Eugene Meehan's weekly newsletter, which has the rundown of the latest SCC jurisprudence.

 

@markdv88: I probably fall in the same category as you describe yourself. I wouldn't say I'm very outgoing or engaging in person, but I've had no trouble with clients or the criminal courts. Clients want competent counsel who can spell things out in language they understand without being patronizing. "Here's how this is going down, here's what I think your chances are, here's what I think you should do ..." Mind you, I've never had to deal with the marketing side of things (fortunately) because of the small bar in my area. And there are clients who are looking for a Johnny Cochran-style showman (which I am most assuredly not). But for many/most people, if you're easy to talk to, a good listener, and can communicate with them about their case in an understandable way, then that's all that matters.

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2.  Day in the life

-Do you receive many random calls requiring immediate action (e.g. a 4am Sunday morning call from a client arrested for impaired driving)?

-Is it difficult to form relationships with prosecutors/court staff in the GTA (I go to school in a smaller province and got to know some of the prosecutors/court staff very well by the end of the semester…absolutely loved every day)?

-How many criminal files are you juggling at once (I had approximately 15 and that was quite a lot for me)?

-What is usually the earliest trial date you can get (in my province it takes approximately 4 – 5 months)?

-Did/will you eventually specialize in an area of criminal law?

 

-What do you like most about your career?  What do you like least?  If you were to start fresh as a 2L midway through law school, what would you do differently?

 

I appreciate any and all input.  If you don’t want to post, please feel free to PM me; I would love to hear from any practitioners out there!

 

I'm not one to ask the business-side questions, but I can speak to the practice side of things.

 

Random phone calls - depends on how you want to structure your practice.  Certainly some lawyers do advertise "call 24 hours"... but many don't as well.  From my brief time doing crim defence I took those 2am phone calls, and don't think I ever got a paying client out of it.

 

Relationships with prosecutors / court staff.  In my experience, it varies quite a bit jurisdiction to jurisdiction.  In some places the relationship is rather hostile, in some places it's a detached goodwill, and in some places genuine friendship (all speaking in generalities, there are some exceptions).    BUt in general if you sick to a defined jurisdiction for awhile you'll develop some level of relationship with all of the other parties - the judge included.

 

How many files?  15... teeheehee.  I have 102 as of today (though Crowns will carry more files than defence).  But it depends on what kinds of files and what kind of support staff and network you have.  You'll build up to it.

 

Earliest date?  depends very much on the kind of file.  You have a 2 witness shoplifting?  We can get you a date in 2-3 months.  A single day impaired?  7-9 months.  A month long jury trial?  Probably about a year.

 

Specialize?  It's good to be a bit of a specialist (I have some expertise with driving offences), but I'd be careful about pigeonholing yourself into too narrow an area.  It's good to keep yourself open to multiple areas of law.  You never know when changes in society, in law, or in a particular client, may cause you to need to shift your area of expertise.

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I know I'm a bit late to the topic, but if you're a student who wants to read up on caselaw, QuickLaw's collection of criminal practice netletters are gold.

 

Find out, too, if your principal specializes - for instance, through my work (I'm a driving offences Crown) I know a lot of lawyers who only do impaireds. These are technical and if you're working on them, you need to familiarize yourself with those sections of the Code and the Charter ASAP. But if your principal does mostly domestics, or run-of-the-mill bar fights, you'd use your time better in researching defences.

 

Also, understand that not everything is a battle to the death - know what's relevant and important to your client and principal. Every year we get a snotty articling student who gets worked up and huffy when the Crown makes its boilerplate 11(b) submissions on the 10th defence adjournment, or when the Crown asks for a letter setting out what disclosure is missing. It's exasperating to everyone in the courtroom, and embarrassing to their principal.

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Thank you so much Hegdis, Widget, Malicious Prosecutor and crownattorney for all the great information.  It's making my decisions to practice criminal law a bit easier.  I guess that although I'm enjoying criminal law, I'm a little disappointed about my earning potential being somewhat below other areas of law.  To my understanding, criminal and family law are the least profitable but most recession-proof fields of law.  With that said, are the skills from practicing criminal law generally transferable to other areas of law?  I know that with civil litigation files, a very small number seem to go to court, thereby making courtroom experience not very important.  What other areas of law do criminal defence lawyers generally deal with?

 

Also, can someone tell my why criminal defence lawyers are usually solo practitioners?  I've never been able to wrap my head around this.  At our clinic, inter alia, we constantly bounce ideas off of one another and help each other prep for trials.  There was rarely a time when once of us, or our supervising lawyers, didn't know what to do in a situation or didn't have a precedent for something.  A matter requiring a day of research, e.g. the full process of bringing a civil claim against a police officer, would take minutes with the help of a colleague whose been through it before.  Also, many times we would have one of us would go down to the courthouse and do 6 adjournments instead of all of us going.  None of us really understood what the benefit was of going solo as a criminal defence lawyer.

 

I also have a few questions about articles.  How the hell do you get them when there are so few posting in the area of criminal defence?  I imagine that MAG is super competitive and that articling with a solo practitioner can be hit or miss.  How competitive is it to get an articling position with a criminal defence firm with 5+ people in it (in the GTA)?  Can anybody working at a firm throw out a number (e.g. every year we get 40 or so resumes for 1 spot).  Should I just article with a firm that does general practice (with some criminal law) and take notes on how to hang my own shingle?  

Edited by homer

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I don't know if your earning potential is "below other areas".  Look, nobody in crim law discusses salaries, but while there are some primarily legal aid lawyers who drive beaters and wear rumpled suits, there are others who drive expensive luxury vehicles, take fancy vacations, and seem to be doing very well for themselves.  It's just that being a sole practitioner means running your own business - some people are better at it than others.

 

Why so many sole practitioners?  I agree with you by the way about the value and power of bouncing ideas off colleagues.  But the benefit if being a solo is that nobody tells you what to do.  You don't have to apologize for taking an afternoon off to go play golf.  You don't have to share your billings.  You're your own man (or woman).  That appeals to a certain type of person, and I dare say that type of person is disproportionately drawn to criminal defence.

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I've spoken with several family and criminal lawyers who are quite impressed with the earning potential in their area (and rocked the watches to match).  I think the idea of it being low-paying might be biased in favour of the first couple of years, as getting a solo practice up and running can be difficult (I would imagine).

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