Jump to content
Umpalumpa

Surviving as a fresh criminal defence lawyer GTA?

Recommended Posts

Hey guys, it looks like I will be finishing my articles in criminal law but will likely not have a job after that. Do you know how hard/doable it is to hack it as a solo criminal defence lawyer in Ontario; and for specifically the GTA?

I have spoken with several defence counsel who are more senior and they basically all say the same thing: it will be rough but it is getting worse as the years go. This is due to the the massive glut of lawyers and how legal aid defence work is low hanging fruit; yada-yada. But I do not know how much stake to put on their evaluation. They are at a much higher level of success than what most defence lawyers would expect. It is hard to say if there evaluation it accurate; by that I mean they are not a fresh grad by any stretch and their salary expectation is quite high. Obviously cash clients are out of the question as a fresh solo, but how hard is it to survive on legal aid certs?

I understand running a business is a highly individualized thing but I am asking as someone with a modest network in criminal law and a personality that is outgoing.

There must be a certain percentage who succeed and fail in this era but I do not know if the odds are like 10:1 or 1:20. Again, I am not asking for great success, just a modest salary to live and pay of my loans. Is 20k-40k a realistic expectation? Or should I start lining up at the food banks?

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Is this the unicorn post where someone's expectations about practicing criminal law are somehow too low? 

I actually can't answer your question directly as I don't practice crim and can't advise about starting out on your own. Others will answer it. But I know a couple of people who articled in different areas of law and got hired for crim jobs as fresh calls with $50k starting salaries. 

Edited by BringBackCrunchBerries

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
3 minutes ago, BringBackCrunchBerries said:

Is this the unicorn post where someone's expectations about practicing criminal law are somehow too low? 

I actually can't answer your question directly as I don't practice crim. Others will answer it. But I know a couple of people who articled in different areas of law and got hired for crim jobs as fresh calls with $50k starting salaries. 

OP is asking about sole practice. In such a case, there's no minimum income, and it cannot be related to what someone might pay you as an associate. You earn whatever you earn, which could potentially be very little, yes. Doesn't have to be, but it's a real concern not to be dismissed lightly.

I'll try to post something intelligent soon. In the meanwhile, OP, start by reviewing this topic. It's going to answer at least some of your questions.

 

  • Like 1

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

OP can live and pay back loans with $20K-40K? Was this posted 20 years ago? 
 

I’m not familiar with the legal aid system in Ontario, so I can’t comment specifically on that. I can say that I’ve seen a few very smart and very driven former classmates do fairly well right out of articles. However, they invested some money in their practices and did some mixed civil litigation (or maybe family law) to shore up their income. 
 

I think that if you don’t either get into an office sharing arrangement with senior counsel who can send some work your way, or have a very strong network who will do the same, the odds of you earning a living wage in your first year are very poor. 
 

And read the classic @Hegdis post on this if you haven’t already. 

Edited by QuincyWagstaff
  • Like 1

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

@BringBackCrunchBerries

Getting hired at a stable salary would be great. It is nice that those people landed positions. I am probably considered a "competitive" candidate at this point but I am not going to count my future on it. Especially now with the blow COVID has done to trial work. Although the courts are opening up, it will be a slow bleed for a long time.

@QuincyWagstaff@Diplock

Thanks for the inspiration.

Now that I took a more careful look through your thread things are beginning to clarify. It appears that it is possible to make a decent living. But that income is entirely dependent on referred work. And the referred work is dependent on other defence counsel liking me and/or respecting my work.

I guess I just assumed this field would be too saturated to make anything out of it. I thought that the flux of new calls - predominantly foreign grads - all carving out their small client base of legal aid would make it hard/impossible to make a decent income. But - as you outline - it seems it is just dependent on referred work. Which makes sense since brand/advertisement is not really a thing for new calls. And respected defence counsel who have surplus work are going to be reluctant referring clients or extra work to: no-name joe who is only taking crim files because he has to.

It looks like my best hope is making connections and landing a chambers style arrangement where I would have a more formal referral source.

I have a few questions from this:

Is my summary correct? 

How do I go about looking for an arrangement of this sort? Also, if I chat to defence counsel and let them know I am starting my own practice and will take any referred work would that be considered too uncouth? Clearly a lot depends on context but I know lawyers can be quite territorial.

Also - my latent question in the first post - how many fail at this? Obviously it would be a quick crash-and-burn exit but it would be helpful to know what the body count is of solo defence practitioners actually is. How stacked the odds are.

 

Edited by Umpalumpa

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Getting added to the legal aid lost doesn't mean you magically start getting calls. You still need to hustle and take over conflicts, or co accused, hustle to meet clients and be available, etc. Building a practice from the ground up is fairly intense and made all the more difficult without the capacity to make direct interactions.

You need to make it known that you're accepting work. You also need to make the lawyers like you. I have a slew of referrals that I can make. I've had people expressly ask for referrals but I won't send a client unless I would use them myself. My name is attached to the referral so I want it to work out.

If you're in Ontario, you're not getting on the legal aid panel without a mentor. You might be able to get some referrals and agency work that way. 

Last, I'm not sure that I've met a Crim lawyer who takes criminal files because "they have to". Sure, taking rounders and the like might be boring. But people generally practicing crim want the files. If anything, family and child protection seem to have the lawyers taking files as income streams to stay afloat.

  • Like 3

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
1 hour ago, artsydork said:

You need to make it known that you're accepting work. You also need to make the lawyers like you. I have a slew of referrals that I can make. I've had people expressly ask for referrals but I won't send a client unless I would use them myself. My name is attached to the referral so I want it to work out.

How can one generally go about making other lawyers "like" them? For someone like OP who's starting fresh and doesn't have any major experience to point to, what could he do to gain your trust to the point where you're comfortable throwing a few scraps his way?

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
21 minutes ago, Cheech said:

How can one generally go about making other lawyers "like" them? For someone like OP who's starting fresh and doesn't have any major experience to point to, what could he do to gain your trust to the point where you're comfortable throwing a few scraps his way?

Maybe starting by not calling clients scraps would help.

  • Haha 3

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Courtroom manners, ability to negotiate, not be a dump truck, be available for their clients, be humble, etc are some reasons how I refer out. It's a mixture of "would I want this person to work on a file with me" and whether I like them. Basically, do I trust that the lawyer can do this knowing that, in the client's mind, my name is attached?

When I was building my own practice, I picked up work for being known for urgency work, as in let's get these documents served and filed by tomorrow. Being available is also key because sometimes we'd keep a file but for the timing.

  • Like 3
  • Thanks 1

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
13 hours ago, artsydork said:

Getting added to the legal aid lost doesn't mean you magically start getting calls. You still need to hustle and take over conflicts, or co accused, hustle to meet clients and be available, etc. Building a practice from the ground up is fairly intense and made all the more difficult without the capacity to make direct interactions.

You need to make it known that you're accepting work. You also need to make the lawyers like you. I have a slew of referrals that I can make. I've had people expressly ask for referrals but I won't send a client unless I would use them myself. My name is attached to the referral so I want it to work out.

If you're in Ontario, you're not getting on the legal aid panel without a mentor. You might be able to get some referrals and agency work that way. 

Last, I'm not sure that I've met a Crim lawyer who takes criminal files because "they have to". Sure, taking rounders and the like might be boring. But people generally practicing crim want the files. If anything, family and child protection seem to have the lawyers taking files as income streams to stay afloat.

That makes sense. Thanks for the information.

To be clear, and for anyone else who stumbles across this Q in the future, I assume I will/would be doing the necessary hustle. It was the other part I am really curious about; how to actually get clients and income expectations. I take it for given I will be on call 24/7 and putting in oodles more time than I bill Legal Aid.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

I've been meaning to post something more for a few days now and I keep prioritizing other things. Then when I think about what I want to say here it's such a huge topic I'm not sure what to add. Seriously, read through that AMA. It covers a lot of things you wouldn't think to ask.

I'll say this much. It's hard to pin down what it takes to succeed in a single description, but you still know it when you see it. And as far as I can tell (on limited exposure here) the OP has the right stuff. It's a combination of good attitude, reasonable expectations, ability to engage maturely with peers, willingness to hustle and learn, etc.

When you're asking about attrition rates I honestly have no idea. I'm not even sure how you'd capture such a thing. Some people try seriously to start their own practice and give it everything. I've rarely seen someone like that fail. Others dabble, with the sorts of results you'd expect when you're trying to do this in a half-assed way. Remember, the same factors that you're citing which create competition even for less desirable clients are really just the low barrier to entry. That is to say, even marginally qualified lawyers with limited skills are practicing here. Yes, that does create competition. But is it really the sort of competition you think you can't beat?

I repeat some of my most essential advice, offered elsewhere. Join the Criminal Lawyers' Association. It's just $100 for the year as a recent call, and it's worth many times the price. Get on the listserv. Put yourself out there and just say basically that you've recently set up for yourself and you'll take agency work. That alone will generate a lead or two.

Now the one really crappy thing right now is that a lot of networking generally takes place in person. My standard advice is to take every opportunity to get into court. But right now no one is in court. Now sure what to say about that. It's a bad scene. If you're comfortable doing bail reviews, especially for the crap rates Legal Aid allows for them, that's something other lawyers might gladly hand off to you right now. Big demand for reviews for anyone in custody, and they are pain in the ass. Everything else that generally happens in court is on hold right now.

I'll try to think of some more stuff to say soon.

  • Like 4

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

So my nephew ran into some trouble with the law a few months ago.  Of course the only way I could help him was by recommending some names of good lawyers to him.

So I thought about it, chatted with a few colleagues.  Eventually I came up with a list of 3 names (well 4, because I threw on a "cost is no object" name as well).  The lawyers I recommended weren't the ones that were best buddies with the Crown.  I can usually see through that - I know a few that relentlessly ask me about my kids or what not when they see me.  They weren't the most famous lawyers. They're not the ones who just roll over on files either.

The names I came up with were the lawyers who do the work.  They show up to court and know their file and have done their homework.  It's something so absolutely simple to say, but somehow so uncommon to actually see.

@Umpalumpa I can't give you any advice for how you'd survive the first couple years as a crim solo in the GTA.  But if you put in the hard work day in and day out (which is easy to say, and hard to do), it'll get noticed and clients will follow.

 

And for what it's worth, the lawyer my nephew selected from my list had my nephew enroll in some courses prior to his first appearance and convinced the Crown to withdraw the charges against him as a result.

  • Like 4

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
22 hours ago, Malicious Prosecutor said:

The lawyers I recommended weren't the ones that were best buddies with the Crown

And for what it's worth, the lawyer my nephew selected from my list had my nephew enroll in some courses prior to his first appearance and convinced the Crown to withdraw the charges against him as a result.

I'll answer the OP's question in a second, but--assuming all things are equal--the poorest defence lawyer I know would have been alive to the issue of making the kind of referrals you've referenced. The real value is in hiring a lawyer who is in close enough with the Crown that the kind of charge your nephew accrued could/would be withdrawn. We're not talking legal acumen here; it's something else. 

Now the answer: your expectations are low enough that you will certainly succeed. If you're competent and provide good service, you will get 20 Legal Aid Clients who will test the waters. I'd say 50k is a ceiling for you right now. If you build a practice and get really good, I've said many times that 100k is doable. I don't want to argue with people making more than that, but it's not reasonable at this stage to capture the cash clients who can vault you into the next level. 

  • Like 1

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
52 minutes ago, KingLouis said:

I'll answer the OP's question in a second, but--assuming all things are equal--the poorest defence lawyer I know would have been alive to the issue of making the kind of referrals you've referenced. The real value is in hiring a lawyer who is in close enough with the Crown that the kind of charge your nephew accrued could/would be withdrawn. We're not talking legal acumen here; it's something else. 

Now the answer: your expectations are low enough that you will certainly succeed. If you're competent and provide good service, you will get 20 Legal Aid Clients who will test the waters. I'd say 50k is a ceiling for you right now. If you build a practice and get really good, I've said many times that 100k is doable. I don't want to argue with people making more than that, but it's not reasonable at this stage to capture the cash clients who can vault you into the next level. 

What's the difference between 50k and 100k in terms of the clientele? Is there a level between legal aid and "cash clients"?

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
10 minutes ago, Cheech said:

What's the difference between 50k and 100k in terms of the clientele? Is there a level between legal aid and "cash clients"?

Yes. They're the people who are at university legal clinics and begging people to take files pro-bono, because they make too much to qualify for legal aid, and not enough to pay in cash. Being trapped between the levels isn't a good place.

  • Sad 2

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

I would have to say there's a lot more nuance to this than KingLouis' posts would suggest, though he really does know that and we're trying to generalize. There is absolutely a very meaningful difference between Legal Aid clients and cash clients. And most of the ways you'd want to progress in and grow your practice involves moving into clients who pay you privately. But it's also possible to build a more successful practice while still serving Legal Aid files. Files that turn into major trials can pay well. And if you pull in enough work - ideally without becoming a dump truck - you can make good money doing this. At the extreme, you end up hiring an associate or two and growing from there. There are successful and lucrative practices that still serve a lot of Legal Aid clients. But there's no question the easiest and by far the most common route is to move from Legal Aid into cash clients as you gain experience.

So, there's really no middle ground in terms of the kind of client in the marketplace. It's either one or the other. I suppose there's a distinction between a client who pays privately but for whom the money is meaningful, and a client who pays privately and for whom money is no real object. But there are maybe a dozen lawyers in the marketplace (at least in Toronto) who compete for the later kind of client. So there's basically just two kinds of clients. That said, it isn't as simplistic as there are two kinds of legal practice, as a result.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
5 hours ago, Diplock said:

I would have to say there's a lot more nuance to this than KingLouis' posts would suggest, though he really does know that and we're trying to generalize.

Oh, definitely. It's a puzzle that depends on every possible factor: location, age, race, skill, tenure, referrals...the list goes on. I've never been able to figure it out because some truly horrible dump-trucks seem not to have trouble getting clients. And then--at the other end of the spectrum--some lawyers who refuse to compromise with the Crown seem not to have trouble getting clients. And then other dump-trucks or hard-nosed lawyers can't get clients at all.

The answer could be as simple as a willingness to answer the phone. Or there might not be an answer. Just try to do the best possible job on each file and not be a prick. The money won't be amazing, but you'll make as much as a Grade 3 teacher (without the pension). 

 

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

I hope it's alright if I piggyback off this thread, because I'm seeing some great input from experienced practitioners who know what they are talking about here. I have some follow-up questions if any of you would be so kind as to provide some insight:

  • If someone is able to article with the Crown and get hired as a Crown Prosecutor afterwards, how much would that lessen the growing pains if they then decided to transfer over to defence practice? By that I don't just mean in terms of learning curve (as obviously one would be better equipped), but in terms of earning potential compared to a new call jumping straight in to crim defence.
     
  • Is it totally insane to consider making the switch in that direction, given the salary, job security, etc afford through a Crown job? I feel more defence-oriented ideologically but the thought of putting in some time with the Crown to pay off debt and gain experience and credibility before moving over is very attractive to me. But I've been seeing and hearing of a lot of defence counsel moving to the Crown in recent years while rarely hearing about things flowing the other way (for reasons that seem pretty obvious). The COVID situation obviously only exacerbates this existing imbalance.
     
  • The OP talks about working in the GTA, but how should one's expectations in terms of work and income be adjusted if they are willing to work anywhere in Canada? My understanding is that if one is willing to go to some underserved area in Buttfuck Nowhere, Saskatchewan, they will be able to receive higher level legal aid files far sooner, as well as take on more cash clients sooner due to decreased competition for files, but I'm unsure of the degree of this disparity between locations or what sort of income one could expect in the early days.

Thanks, guys!

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
14 hours ago, KingLouis said:

I'll answer the OP's question in a second, but--assuming all things are equal--the poorest defence lawyer I know would have been alive to the issue of making the kind of referrals you've referenced. The real value is in hiring a lawyer who is in close enough with the Crown that the kind of charge your nephew accrued could/would be withdrawn. We're not talking legal acumen here; it's something else. 

Maybe I just have a low opinion of defence lawyers, but I feel like I constantly get requests for offers that are just that - please give me an offer.  I open the file and there's obvious signs that point to some kind of huge back story for the Accused (usually some kind of combination of poverty, homelessness, drugs, alcohol, and mental health issues) - but I can't just guess at what they might be!

It's always a rare pleasure when I get an email or letter setting out some details about an Accused, and even rarer for defence to actually suggest a resolution to me.  If you give me an even half way reasonable offer, and all I need to do is sign off on it, there's a good chance I'm going to say yes, even if it wasn't the offer I would have made.

Which goes back to what I was saying - the key is just in doing the work.

  • Like 3

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
33 minutes ago, CleanHands said:

I hope it's alright if I piggyback off this thread, because I'm seeing some great input from experienced practitioners who know what they are talking about here. I have some follow-up questions if any of you would be so kind as to provide some insight:

  • If someone is able to article with the Crown and get hired as a Crown Prosecutor afterwards, how much would that lessen the growing pains if they then decided to transfer over to defence practice? By that I don't just mean in terms of learning curve (as obviously one would be better equipped), but in terms of earning potential compared to a new call jumping straight in to crim defence.
     
  • Is it totally insane to consider making the switch in that direction, given the salary, job security, etc afford through a Crown job? I feel more defence-oriented ideologically but the thought of putting in some time with the Crown to pay off debt and gain experience and credibility before moving over is very attractive to me. But I've been seeing and hearing of a lot of defence counsel moving to the Crown in recent years while rarely hearing about things flowing the other way (for reasons that seem pretty obvious). The COVID situation obviously only exacerbates this existing imbalance.
     
  • The OP talks about working in the GTA, but how should one's expectations in terms of work and income be adjusted if they are willing to work anywhere in Canada? My understanding is that if one is willing to go to some underserved area in Buttfuck Nowhere, Saskatchewan, they will be able to receive higher level legal aid files far sooner, as well as take on more cash clients sooner due to decreased competition for files, but I'm unsure of the degree of this disparity between locations or what sort of income one could expect in the early days.

Thanks, guys!

So in the last 10 years I can think of precisely one Crown who voluntarily went to the defence side (a few others went when they were let go by the Crown), whereas a whole bunch of defence lawyers have come over here.  I believe it's primarily a financial motivation.

Being a Crown you'll learn lots about how to run a file (and consequently how to defend it).  But what you won't learn is how to build a client case.  You will be starting from scratch on that important skill.

I did briefly practice in a small community.  Yes, I feel like I could get clients much more easily than if I was trying to do so in the city.  In particular for family law I had clients seeking me out.  However, not all small towns are created equally.  You'd have to try and do some research to find a community that is sufficiently wealthy enough to hire lawyers, has a high enough crime rate, and has not enough competition.  There's also the fact that you'll always be viewed suspiciously by the residents of that small town until you've really put down roots in that community.

  • Like 1
  • Thanks 1

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Create an account or sign in to comment

You need to be a member in order to leave a comment

Create an account

Sign up for a new account in our community. It's easy!

Register a new account

Sign in

Already have an account? Sign in here.

Sign In Now

  • Recently Browsing   0 members

    No registered users viewing this page.

×
×
  • Create New...