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ZappBranniganAgain

Considering Transitioning into Criminal Defense

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Hey all,

So I'm coming to the end of my first year of call and I'm interested in transitioning my practice into criminal defense.  Up until now I have been doing primarily family, wills, and a bit of judgement enforcement.

I understand that criminal law is (to say the least) a brave new world. I'm not looking to "dabble in the occult" as one person put it: I'm looking to move into the area.

My main reasons are:

1. My firm is taking on a new criminal defense lawyer, who would then be one of two defense lawyers in the area (it's a very underserviced region), who would be able to provide guidance;

2. The current criminal defense lawyer in town has a huge overflow and is looking for people to take referrals, plus she's retiring soon;

3. I started to take an interest in doing defense work near the end of law school after meeting some crowns and defense lawyers, but haven't had the opportunity to practice in it before; and

4. My wills/solicitor practice is pretty slow so I'm looking to replace it with something else.

 

I understand that this may be a mistake, and I haven't committed to anything yet. It's just a possibility. Getting clients would likely not be an issue (I get calls for it and I don't even advertise). The issue is competency. I take it seriously and have already started preparing, but obviously theoretical knowledge can be as useful as a hat on a donkey in practice. I'm not personally afraid of just learning as I go, but this is serious business and I don't want to gamble with someone's freedom because I messed up the bail hearing.

 

These are my main questions:

1. Is it a complete mistake to start taking criminal files without previous experience, even if I have some guidance from more senior lawyers?

2. Is it ok to "learn by doing" like I do with family and wills (family especially) or are the stakes just too high in crim for that?

3. Do you have any advice for someone starting out fresh as a criminal defense lawyer?

 

Just to reiterate, I take this seriously and intend to work as hard as necessary to do right by my clients. I understand that the more experienced criminal lawyers might be shaking their heads at this post, and that's ok. I'm just looking for some perspective since I'm in a relatively small center, and there is only defense lawyer to talk to around here (unless I catch one of the lawyers who fly in for legal aid files).

Thoughts?

 

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Without going into too much detail for each of your questions, your approach to this is entirely reasonable and responsible. Most defence lawyers end up jumping first and then learning to swim. It's an unavoidable reality of the practice area. Although it may seem to be high stakes, you'll end up cutting your teeth on less extreme files to start and you won't be doing a murder or anything right out. The nice thing about crim is that the same basic principles apply throughout. The stakes are higher on serious charges but the same skills are used. It's like being able to practice meaningfully for brain surgery by treating a broken leg. By the time you've done some less serious stuff, you really will have skills ready when you need them. 

If you've got one good mentor there that's more than some have. Learn from him/her. Learn also from the retiring lawyer you mentioned. If there's one weakness in your situation at all, it's an unavoidable feature of your relative isolation. With such a small pool of experience to learn from you won't know what "good" and "bad" really look like. It's like growing up around three serious hockey players and no one to compare them to. They could all be really bad and you'd never know. They could all be stellar and you wouldn't know. Most likely, they do some things well but you'll never be exposed to ideas and approaches that are common elsewhere and could really help you. So my advice would be, as much as possible, join associations, attend conferences, and get outside the bubble whenever you can. It'll pay off. 

Based on your attitude alone, I can easily foresee and imagine you could soon be the regional leader in what you do. Anyone can learn the skills. Not everyone can learn the right attitudes and values. Those you either have or you don't have. You should do this - absolutely. You'll be good at it. 

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I was thinking this thread might interest you...

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2 hours ago, Diplock said:

Without going into too much detail for each of your questions, your approach to this is entirely reasonable and responsible. Most defence lawyers end up jumping first and then learning to swim. It's an unavoidable reality of the practice area. Although it may seem to be high stakes, you'll end up cutting your teeth on less extreme files to start and you won't be doing a murder or anything right out. The nice thing about crim is that the same basic principles apply throughout. The stakes are higher on serious charges but the same skills are used. It's like being able to practice meaningfully for brain surgery by treating a broken leg. By the time you've done some less serious stuff, you really will have skills ready when you need them. 

If you've got one good mentor there that's more than some have. Learn from him/her. Learn also from the retiring lawyer you mentioned. If there's one weakness in your situation at all, it's an unavoidable feature of your relative isolation. With such a small pool of experience to learn from you won't know what "good" and "bad" really look like. It's like growing up around three serious hockey players and no one to compare them to. They could all be really bad and you'd never know. They could all be stellar and you wouldn't know. Most likely, they do some things well but you'll never be exposed to ideas and approaches that are common elsewhere and could really help you. So my advice would be, as much as possible, join associations, attend conferences, and get outside the bubble whenever you can. It'll pay off. 

Based on your attitude alone, I can easily foresee and imagine you could soon be the regional leader in what you do. Anyone can learn the skills. Not everyone can learn the right attitudes and values. Those you either have or you don't have. You should do this - absolutely. You'll be good at it. 

Thank you very much for your comments. I appreciate the vote of confidence.

I think that this could be a very promising opportunity for me and I'm glad to have it. I agree that learning from a mentor is very helpful. 

With regards to the isolation, it definitely can be a disadvantage in terms of sharing knowledge. On a side note, it also creates a very different dynamic  from the big city because every lawyer in the area knows who you are, where you live, who you dated in high school...

Anyway. I agree that joining an association is a good idea. I understand that there's a Criminal Defence Litigation Group in my province's Trial Lawyer's Association. It will require some travel to get involved, but I'm sure I could arrange it. I do also have a couple contacts from law school who went into crim so I could probably give them a call as well.

Thanks again.

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@Hegdis can you tell me more about the National Criminal Law Program you linked in the other thread? Could I go there as an articling student or do you have to be a called lawyer?

 

I'm going to be articling in a small general practice firm starting in May 2020 where there are no criminal law specialists. I'm wondering if it would be possible for me to do some criminal work without a clear mentor.

 

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It happens once a year in July and locations are all over the country. You can attend as an articled student and the rates are lower for you. It counts as approx 25 hours of CLE / CPD.

I see the next one is in Victoria. I will be there. @Malicious Prosecutor? @Diplock? And others?

 

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40 minutes ago, Hegdis said:

It happens once a year in July and locations are all over the country. You can attend as an articled student and the rates are lower for you. It counts as approx 25 hours of CLE / CPD.

I see the next one is in Victoria. I will be there. @Malicious Prosecutor? @Diplock? And others?

 

As if GOA has any money to send people out of province for training... :weep:

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On 10/19/2019 at 8:49 PM, McSweeney said:

@Hegdis can you tell me more about the National Criminal Law Program you linked in the other thread? Could I go there as an articling student or do you have to be a called lawyer?

 

I'm going to be articling in a small general practice firm starting in May 2020 where there are no criminal law specialists. I'm wondering if it would be possible for me to do some criminal work without a clear mentor.

 

I've never been to the National Criminal Law Program but have heard great things about it. A senior partner at my firm goes every year and always commends it to me. I, for the sake of convenience alone, usually end up going to the Criminal Lawyers' Association conferences in Toronto. It covers the CPD requirements.

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On 10/19/2019 at 9:46 PM, Hegdis said:

It happens once a year in July and locations are all over the country. You can attend as an articled student and the rates are lower for you. It counts as approx 25 hours of CLE / CPD.

I see the next one is in Victoria. I will be there. @Malicious Prosecutor? @Diplock? And others?

 

This sounds interesting. I'll try to attend this as well.

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35 minutes ago, ZappBranniganAgain said:

This sounds interesting. I'll try to attend this as well.

It's a great program.  I've gone to the last 2 and will try making it a point to continue going each year.  

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