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School of Law

Criminal Defense

Criminal defense attorneys represent persons charged with committing misdemeanors and felonies and work for the federal, state, or local government or for private law firms.

WHERE CRIMINAL DEFENSE ATTORNEYS WORK

FEDERAL Federal Public Defender
Northern District Federal Defender:
Sergio Rodriguez, 312-621-8300
Central District Federal Defender
Southern District Federal Defender
Association of Federal Defenders
National Defender Association
COOK COUNTY Cook County Public Defender
Contact person: Mark Solock
mark.solock@cookcountyil.gov
OTHER ILLINOIS 
COUNTIES
Illinois Public Defender Directory
APPELLATE Illinois Office of the State Appellate Defender
OUTSIDE ILLINOIS PSJD - Public Defender Careers
PSJD - Prosecution Careers

 

Private Defense Attorneys: Private criminal defense attorneys generally work in law firms. Some work in small firms or on their own, but others are associated with mid-size and large firms. Before becoming private defense attorneys, they often gain experience in criminal litigation by working as public defenders or prosecutors. 

White Collar Criminal Defense Attorneys: White collar criminal defense relates to criminal matters that are closely tied to corporate or financial matters, which might include defending against allegations of securities fraud, tax evasion, or antitrust violations. Generally such practices are developed or staffed by former federal prosecutors from the Department of Justice or other federal criminal enforcement bodies. The work is similar to civil litigation with research, drafting, factual development, and argument, but with more significant client contact. Client relationships tend to be very close. Attorneys who do this have to live battling the government and crisis management. It is a high-stress practice.

Contract: Some small counties and cities do not have a Public Defender. Instead, they contract with individuals or individual firms to represent indigent criminal defendants within the city or county.


 PUBLIC DEFENDERS
The Constitution provides that anyone accused of a crime, even the indigent, has the right to be defended by an attorney. Thus, states, municipalities, and the federal government maintain public defenders' offices which provide defense counsel to anyone who needs it. These offices are typically organized by the type of alleged crime. For example, traffic crimes, juvenile crimes, misdemeanors, felonies, and civil crimes (abuse, neglect, dependency, etc.)

Working as a public defender can be one of the most rewarding, challenging, and demanding jobs in the legal profession. Every day the work is different, and every day, defenders feel that they have made a contribution to the poor of society. People drawn to the field include those who enjoy direct client contact and helping the underdog, and those who crave courtroom action and immediate responsibility. Most public defenders can expect to assume responsibility for their own caseload very soon after starting the job and many try their first cases soon within their first year after being hired.

Unlike big firm lawyers with lonely desk jobs, public defenders are in court practically every day and interact with every segment of society. Defenders also have an insider's view of the area of our government most subject to public fascination and scrutiny. The topic of crime and the criminal justice system captivates people as demonstrated by the plethora of police dramas and "real life" crime shows on television. This insider's perspective gives defenders special insight into the workings of the system and, for those who care, provides for popular conversation at cocktail parties.

But the day to day reality of the work is that public defenders exist for their clients. Their clients often represent the most downtrodden members of our society: the poor, the homeless, and the abused. Since clients come from the most underprivileged sector of society, defenders should expect to experience a strong dose of their reality. Abject poverty, homelessness, drug abuse, domestic violence, and child abuse are constants in the lives of defender clients. At some time in their career, every public defender experiences some degree of sadness because of their exposure to the constant misery that pervades the lives of their clients. But for most, the joy of providing each client with the best representation possible far outweighs those tough periods.

Being a public defender exposes an attorney to a roller coaster ride of emotion: from fantastic highs when you win to deadening lows when you lose. While winning a criminal case will never actually satisfy a client's material needs, winning prevents them from losing years of their lives to incarceration, deportation, or even death. Many defenders remember their first win not because of the ego satisfaction it provided, but because of the look on the face of their client who, perhaps for the first time, had the system work for him instead of against him.

Of course, the losses can be just as frustrating. Every defender can recount losing a trial, hearing, or motion that they expected to win. With the vast majority of cases across the nation ending in plea bargains, losing one of the few cases actually litigated carries a particular sting. Oftentimes, these losses take a heavy toll on the public defender since the consequences more often than not result in a loss of liberty for the client. But again, lawyers who can learn to cope with the disheartening losses are in for a wonderful experience.

Learn more about Public Defender hiring here!

What Hiring Managers Want to See


 QUESTIONS YOU SHOULD CONSIDER BEFORE BECOMING A PUBLIC DEFENDER
Students thinking about becoming a public defender should consider several questions before they begin applying. While not all defenders are the same, and not all offices operate in the same way, there are some traits common to most defenders - traits not shared by everyone in our society. Assessing your strengths and weaknesses, as well as evaluating your motives for wanting to become a public defender, will go a long way toward helping you decide if this is the career for you. Many of these same issues are also raised in interviews for positions with defender offices, so you will want to have given them some thought.

1. How do you feel about crime and criminals?
While no one in our society likes crime, people have varying degrees of reaction to it. Some are outraged and call on judges and prosecutors to punish wrongdoers with the maximum sentence possible. Others are more willing to consider the environmental, social, and economic factors in the background of the accused. Those with more lenient attitudes toward offenders often make good public defenders. Additionally, many law students get excited about representing an innocent person, but far fewer feel the same about representing a client who is guilty. The truth is that a vast majority of clients represented by public defenders have done something, maybe not the exact crime charged, but some bad act. This means that defenders do represent guilty people and you should strongly consider how you would feel about representing, on a daily basis, clients who have committed a crime.

Some public defenders actually relish representing the guilty. Maneuvering around the minefields of the burden of proof and the statutory elements of the crime can be a rewarding experience. Often, prosecutors who assume they have an "airtight" case fail to consider all the alternatives, and a clever defender can figure out a way to get her client acquitted. While the public may revile the criminal freed "on a technicality," these technicalities are the bread and butter of public defense work. Moreover, in a justice system that relies so heavily on plea bargaining, helping guilty clients get the best deal possible is not "freeing" the guilty but instead keeps the system working for all who enter it by forcing better lawyering on both sides of the case.

2. How do you feel about standing up to the system?
Despite the presumption of innocence, most judges and prosecutors in the criminal justice system presume that the individuals in their courtrooms have committed the crime with which they have been charged. This creates a very difficult dynamic for a public defender, who is charged with ensuring that her client, guilty or innocent, attains a fair trial and receives the same constitutional protections afforded any other American. But in a context where guilt is regularly presumed, lawyers who insist on asserting a client’s rights are often viewed by judges or prosecutors as “difficult,” “non-collegial,” or “sticklers for detail.”1 Many times in my thirteen years of practice as a public defender, every single person in the courtroom, from prosecutor to judge to juror, wanted to see me fail. While I got a charge out of this, other lawyers I worked with could not handle that kind of stress. Moreover, in some jurisdictions, the pressure to convince clients to plead guilty is tremendous and it takes nerve and a strong backbone to stand up and assert a client’s right to litigate his or her case.

Outside the legal system, the general public often has little or no respect for the work defenders do. While the work may provide conversation topics for cocktail parties, it is fair to say that most people you meet will think you aid and abet criminals. If you need constant reassurance from friends and family that what you are doing is right, then perhaps being a public defender is not for you. On the other hand, some lawyers delight in going against the tide or being an outsider. Public defender work meshes nicely with this mind set.

3. Will you like the clients? Do you like direct client contact?
The common perception of criminal defendants is the media portrayal of the animalistic murderer or rapist driven by an irresistible impulse to maim and murder. With very few exceptions, this could not be further from the truth. The vast majority of clients who walk into a public defender’s office are nice, respectful people who have, whether through some fault of their own or others, wound up on the wrong side of the jail cell. The client base consists of young men and women who exercised bad judgment on a one-time only basis, individuals high on drugs or alcohol, the homeless, and victims of abuse. Except for bad luck or economic deprivation, many clients are no different from anyone else in society, and many defenders genuinely like their clients.

The flip side of liking the clients is that it greatly increases the rate of burn out among career defenders. Constantly seeing the human misery endemic to the lives of most defendants takes a toll on defenders. Many report being unable to leave visions of this misery at the workplace. Home and family life then suffer. One defensive mechanism is developing a sense of humor. The ability to laugh at the sometimes foolish acts of our clients helps many attorneys survive.

While it is not so difficult to develop genuine feelings for the clients, some lawyers just do not like jobs requiring direct client contact. Going into poor neighborhoods or drug-infested areas to search for, or interview, witnesses is something not all lawyers would enjoy. While they may share the same defense-oriented leanings, these lawyers prefer jobs that are more cerebral or policy oriented. If you feel that you may fall into this category, you may want to consider working in the appeals section of a public defender’s office. Appellate lawyers get to argue the cutting edge criminal law issues without having to deal with the stresses of direct client contact. Other options include the special litigation divisions of defender organizations that handle “larger” constitutional issues that arise indirectly in the course of representing indigent clients.

4. Do you have the people skills necessary to do this job?
A common misconception is that trial lawyers are all extroverts, former class presidents with a need to be in the spotlight. Based on my experience meeting and working with public defenders over my career, this is not an accurate perception. To be a successful public defender, one need not be a showman. Relatively shy people can be excellent public defenders as long as that shyness does not carry over into trial work. For example, at parties, you may be afraid to speak to people you don’t know, shy about interjecting your point of view into a discussion, and generally not the life of the party; however, at work, you may not be shy when speaking to clients, witnesses, prosecutors or judges. While shyness may make you nervous before each and every jury trial, once jury selection begins, shyness frequently disappears when you focus on the business of trying to win the case. This is not to say that extroverts have no place in criminal defense–William Kunstler, Jerry Spence and Leslie Abramson are prominent examples–but students who initially feel unsure about how they will do in front of a jury should not allow that insecurity to deter them from a career in which they may do quite well.

However, public defenders are required to forge relationships and work with people every day. A defender must be able to present his case effectively to prosecutors, judges and juries, so students who have qualms about this may want to consider different career options.


DEVELOPING A PUBLIC DEFENDER RESUME
In general, public defenders are looking for candidates that have two basic attributes: the ability to project themselves to a jury and a commitment to indigent clients. Different offices may emphasize one attribute over the other, but all of the public defenders interviewed for this manual stated that they sought candidates possessing these two traits. Consequently, students considering becoming a public defender should work on developing experience that demonstrates trial ability as well as care and concern for the poor. Since most law students will not have any actual trial experience, students should focus on activities that demonstrate their ability to speak to the public, handle and explain complicated issues, and think on their feet. Working in clinics, taking courses in trial advocacy, and participating in moot court are traditional means of demonstrating experience with oral advocacy. Pro bono work, clinics and trial advocacy courses, and to a lesser degree, moot court, have become so traditional that many public defenders actually question the commitment of students who do not have them on their resume. Thus, applicants who did not participate in these programs should be prepared to explain why. The fact that these traditional methods of demonstrating public advocacy have become tests for judging commitment to the work should not deter students from emphasizing other experiences which show the same skills.

Since most public defenders will teach you how to try a case, they are not as concerned with your knowledge of trial procedure as they are with your ability to “sell” yourself in front of a group of people. Political organizing and campaigning can be very valuable experiences–especially if the work involved public speaking or debate. Advocacy in administrative hearings, school disciplinary proceedings or employment hearings is another way of showing an ability to work on your feet.

Since trial work occupies only part of the work of a public defender, offices try to screen for attorneys who will work well with the clients. As stated above, the clientele in most defender offices consists of indigent people accused of committing a crime. Depending on the jurisdiction, the indigent clientele can include people of color, recent immigrants, and non-English speakers. Employers look for attorneys who have had some experience interacting with the client base. Thus, the public defender in San Diego, for instance, places greater stock in attorneys who speak Spanish and have dealt with the problems of illegal immigrants than does a defender in rural Kentucky. Likewise, the Los Angeles County public defender, with its diverse client base consisting of whites, African-Americans, Latinos, and recent immigrants from Asia, places a greater emphasis on attorneys with cross-cultural experience than does the office serving a more homogenous population in Winchester, Virginia.

But whatever the client base, applicants who have had some preparation interacting with poor people will have an advantage over those who do not. Again, clinics provide valuable opportunities to demonstrate your commitment to an employer. Even stronger are pro bono experiences that provide direct client contact such as working with battered women, doing intake for Legal Aid, or working with migrant farm workers. These experiences also provide an opportunity for assessing your own ability and willingness to interact with these types of clients on a daily basis.


HANDLING THE PUBLIC DEFENDER INTERVIEW
Because public defenders try difficult cases under difficult circumstances, interviews are often conducted in a fashion designed to test the ability of the applicant to function under pressure. Interviews can run the gamut from traditional question and answer to hypothetical questions to role playing. While there are a variety of formats and questions, they are all designed to test the applicant on three things: ability as an oral advocate, commitment to indigent clients, and willingness to stand up for what one thinks is right. Thus, prior to the interview, students should list and practice recounting experiences that demonstrate the above traits. This type of preparation will allow the applicant to be prepared to quickly enumerate the ways in which her qualifications match the employer’s needs. Additionally, this document on Prosecutor & Public Defender Interview Prep provides some great tips on interviewing for a criminal defense position.

The "Why" Question
One question that everyone should be prepared to answer articulately is the “why” question:

Appropriate answers:

Sometimes a good answer is one that derives from the applicant’s personal experience:

Hypotheticals
Interviewers will frequently present applicants with hypothetical situations designed to test the applicant’s instincts, judgment, and ability to think quickly. Often these situations will test an applicant’s willingness to work for the guilt client. For example, one defender asks a question like this: "You represent John Jones charged with beating his wife. Jones admits to you that he did in fact beat his wife but stresses that an investigation into his wife’s personal background will reveal facts about her, drug addiction, neglect of her children, and petty theft, that will devastate her credibility and result in Jones’ acquittal. He also tells you in an offhand remark that he would beat her again if he had the chance. The interviewer then asks you how you would proceed." An appropriate answer to this type of question is simply that the client is entitled to zealous representation within ethical bounds, so that of course, you would work to destroy the woman’s credibility and seek an acquittal.

Other hypotheticals may include situations asking you whether and how you would stand up to a judge who was exhibiting bias against your client; your willingness or unwillingness to convince a client with a bad case to take a plea; and your willingness to investigate a client’s alibi even if you personally had doubts about its veracity. In answering these questions, remember to briefly acknowledge your ethical obligations. While very few of the questions are designed to test your knowledge of the Code of Professional Responsibility, offices do want to be certain that they do not hire unethical attorneys who would embarrass them or tarnish the reputation of the office.

Role Playing
In addition to hypotheticals, defender interviews often include role-playing exercises and mock court proceedings. Applicants will be presented with a set of facts and then be asked to interview the client, prepare a bail application or a summation. Some offices give the exercise to the applicant sometime in advance of the interview; other offices present the exercise during the interview.  While the exercises may appear to be a test of the candidate’s knowledge of criminal law or procedure, more often than not a candidate’s knowledge is not the issue. What the exercise is designed to expose is the candidate’s ability to think quickly, speak clearly, and relate to indigent clients. In situations where the applicant is unsure of the relevant law underlying a particular exercise, it is perfectly okay to say so, “I’m not sure what the criteria is for setting bail in New York, so I am going to do my bail application based on the federal standard.” But even if you are unsure of the law, you should nonetheless try to do your best on the exercise. Candidates who enthusiastically participate in the exercise gain points for flexibility and quick thinking.

Some tips on handling the role playing:

If you are meeting your "client" for the first time:

If you are asked to make an application to the "judge":

If you are asked to cross examine a "witness":

If you are given something to prepare in advance like a summation or an opening statement, try to memorize at least the opening paragraph. Being able to make eye contact and flow easily through your introduction will greatly impress the interviewers.

The Panel Interview
If you are called for a second, or subsequent, interview, many offices use a panel format. This will consist of the applicant sitting in front of a panel of attorneys (and sometimes paralegal, investigators, or other non-attorney staff) and fielding questions. Once again, this is designed to test your ability to think quickly, speak effectively, and handle pressure.

One difficulty with the panel interview is staying focused while being hit with questions from all corners. Often, panelists will deliberately ask a question off the topic before you have had an adequate opportunity to fully answer the previous question. Respond by saying that you will deal with the new topic as soon as you have finished responding to the preceding question. You should then quickly wrap up your answer to the previous question and then answer the new question. Remaining calm, on topic and respectful is essential to handling this type of interview. Additionally, remember to make eye contact with the entire panel, not just the person who asked the question. And if there are non-lawyers on the panel, be very careful not to act disrespectfully to them or respond dismissively to their questions–panelists are evaluating you on your ability to interact with all types of people.

Another key to a successful panel interview is to remain calm in the face of negative comments or facial expressions from some panelists. Often, these panels will have a designated “bad guy” who will challenge your answers or take you on in some way to see how you handle tough judges or tough questioning. Sometimes a panelist may just be a difficult person who does not reflect the feelings of the other panelists. In either case, do not be discouraged if you encounter a person like this. Do not allow yourself to be drawn into an argument. As long as you stand by your beliefs and are not dissuaded by the naysayer, you will gain points with the other panelists.


TOPICS CANDIDATES SHOULD RAISE/INTERVIEW QUESTIONS
Training and supervision are important areas to inquire about.  Related topics include how quickly lawyers assume their own caseload and how the office evaluates the performance of its attorneys. Candidates who have carefully researched the office and who know its structure and philosophy are at an advantage since interviewers will be impressed with questions tailored to account for an office’s particular style.

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