Arguably the most important thing for any attorney, but especially a criminal defense attorney, is your reputation. The very first thing I learned in law school was to protect your reputation. The very first thing I learned as a lawyer was to protect your reputation. The people who passed that knowledge onto me could not have been more truthful.
As far as I am concerned, I have many groups that I have to create and maintain a reputation with. Those groups include my clients, fellow criminal defense attorneys, prosecutors, court staff, and judges. While I the same basic qualities and traits, such as truthfulness, timeliness, and kindness are the common threads among all groups, you are bound to have a different reputation with each different group, if you even have one at all.
Among my clients, I have a reputation for being responsive, a good communicator, honest, keeping it real, caring, down to earth, and relatable. I grew up with a diverse group of friends and played soccer with people from all around the world, and I think that is noticeable on how I relate with my clients, whether they hire me or a court appoints me to represent them. I can’t tell you how many times a person has called me saying, “Hey, you represented John Doe, and I know you really cared about him and his case. Do you think you can help me?” That call is among the best feelings as a criminal lawyer.
Among fellow criminal defense attorneys, I think I am known as a winner, maybe even a hotshot. I have heard that some folks think that I am a bit arrogant. I think I have a chip on my shoulder, and I think that is a good thing. You want a lawyer on your side fighting for you who feels he has a grievance against your accuser and has something to prove not just for you, but for the attorney personally. Look at some of the best athletes in the world – they have a chip on the shoulder – and that chip gives them drive and they usually succeed in style – almost always ‘doing the impossible’ and exceeding expectations.
I think there are other criminal defense attorneys that think I am too humble. I sort of agree with them. I don’t walk around boasting about my nearly undefeated record, but at the same time, I am a little ashamed of my record. Why? Why would someone who has a near 100% win record be ashamed? To be honest, it is because I haven’t had many serious cases. I feel like after practicing for 4 years that I should have same serious cases and trial wins under my belt. Where are the robbery charges, sexual assault charges, huge theft charges, medicare fraud clients, murder cases, big delivery of drug cases? I want those, and I know I am competent and capable to handle them, but I just don’t get the calls, and when I do get the calls for the most serious criminal charges, I charge a serious fee.
To be honest, it is kind of difficult to get a reputation among court staff. So many attorneys are shuffling in and out of the county and district criminal courts on a daily basis that if you aren’t in a particular court on a consistent basis – you are likely just a face. Now in the courts were I have tried cases, I have built relationships with the staffs of those courts and I am respected. The same applies for judges. The only way to have a judge remember you is to be there often (which usually means pleading a lot of cases) or trying a case in their court.
Finally, let’s talk about prosecutors. Criminal defense attorneys have to create and maintain relationships and reputations with prosecutors. I approach most prosecutors, especially misdemeanor prosecutors, with the assumption that they are just people doing their jobs, and like most people doing their jobs – they are simply going through the motions, haven’t put in much work, and certainly haven’t thought about the case from a criminal defense attorney’s perspective. You should never trust a criminal defense attorney who tells you, “I know the prosecutor in that court, we are good friends.” Just think about that and you will realize why, other than it arguably being an ethical violation.
As a criminal defense attorney, I generally put prosecutors in one of two hats: reasonable or unreasonable. The unreasonable prosecutors are memorable, while the reasonable prosecutors are not memorable. There is a third category prosecutor that is very memorable – great prosecutors. Great prosecutors are few and far between. More importantly than their ability to see weaknesses in their cases, or listen to me when I tell them what the problems are with their case is how they treat me.
Is the prosecutor honest or dishonest? Does the prosecutor follow through on her word? Does the prosecutor do any work? Does the prosecutor believe every word the police officer and/or complainant witness says? Does the prosecutor demonstrably lie – as in can I prove they have lied? Does the prosecutor treat me with respect? That is what it all boils down to – respect.
I recently dealt with one terrible prosecutor who I can prove is a liar, and one great prosecutor who is honest, reasonable, open-minded, and has a fair sense of justice. I actually, by some incredible stroke of luck as if the stars of Justice aligned, dealt with both prosecutors on the same case.
While I cannot disclose the facts of a case I have learned through my client (confidentiality) I can tell you that my client was arrested for and charged with misdemeanor theft for stealing less around $100 worth of products from target. My client is then abused by the court by being forced to come to court 4 days in a row. My client then has a serious health emergency that prevented him from attending his next several court dates.
Over the course of months I would stop by the court to speak with the chief prosecutor – that is the boss prosecutor in that court room – about this case. I would explain to her that yes, my client is guilty, but we need to find an alternative resolution to this case other than a conviction. Her response was always that “he needs to just take a time served an get on with his life.” This short-sighted and unreasonable prosecutor either doesn’t seem to grasp the fact that taking a time served conviction does not allow someone to move on with his life. A conviction – no matter how much jail time a person is sentenced to – will stick with a person for the rest of his life, especially a theft conviction.
Month after month I would visit this prosecutor in court. I would show her the proof of his medical situation that prevented him from attending court. For this unreasonable prosecutor, it didn’t matter. I would show her proof that he has done more community service than the court would ever make him do. For this unreasonable prosecutor, it didn’t matter. I would show her proof that he had completed a long anti-theft class. For this unreasonable prosecutor, it did not matter. I fought and I fought and I fought. Finally, this unreasonable prosecutor tells me to give her a pretrial intervention packet – which I did.
Pretrial invention is a program – or type of program – where a criminal defendant can get a dismissal without ever having to formally plead guilty. In Harris County, and many other counties, the district attorney offices offer pretrial intervention programs for different types of crimes, including DWI, Possession of Marijuana, Retail Theft, Possession of Controlled Substance, and Prostitution. In order to be admitted into a “PTI” program, the criminal defense attorney must first determine whether his client is eligible for the program. Next, the attorney must ask the prosecutor whether she will consider a Pretrial Intervention Application. If the prosecutor says yes, it is time to put together the application. Most PTI applications require the defendant to write a letter admitting guilt, explaining why she did it, expressing remorse, explaining why it was wrong, and what plans she has for the future to be a positively contributing member of society. Her criminal defense attorney must also write a letter in support of her client recommending her for the program. The third part we need are character reference letters from people in the client’s community. I also strongly recommend that my clients complete some community service and online education course related to the charged crime.
So in the case we are talking about, I put together two nice, beautiful, complete PTI packets and hand deliver them to the prosecutor. She tells me she will read it that day. When I see her a few days later, she says she will read the packet by the end of the week. When I see the prosecutor a week later she says she will read it by tomorrow. This goes on and on at least 5 occasions where she said she would read the packet that everyone worked very hard on, but didn’t. I then visit the prosecutor in court to urge for a dismissal so that my client does not have to come to court and she says – “No, I am an unreasonable prosecutor. I am leaning towards a time served.” Mind you, that is what this terrible excuse for a human being told me months ago – before I put in all the work of creating a PTI packet at her request. She is also the same prosecutor who, two days before I had my client coming to court – and who I told many times he was going to be at court that Friday – said to another criminal defense attorney that, “I have already met my max quota for dismissals today.” Is it ever okay for a prosecutor to say that? NO.
When my client and I walked into the courtroom, I was pleasantly surprised to see that this self-professed unreasonable prosecutor was absent from court that day. I was even more surprised to see one of my favorite Harris County prosecutors – a very nice and very reasonable prosecutor – filling in for the terrible prosecutor. Then, to my dismay, the terrible dishonest prosecutor did not have my file brought to court that day, which threw a wrench in my plans. This was D-Day for this case. We were getting the case resolved that day – and the terrible prosecutor knew it. I told her a half dozen times in person and in email – an email she confirmed she received – that my client was flying in from out of state that morning just for court and leaving that afternoon. This terrible dishonest prosecutor is either eviler than I thought, or a thoughtless and forgetful person. Under most circumstances, I would go with the latter, yet under this circumstance, I am pretty confident it is the former.
Incredibly, the stars aligned and after some pushing, the reasonable and likeable prosecutor dismissed my client’s case “because he completed the anti-theft class and in the interest of justice.” So where does this leave us, as far as reputation is concerned? The good and reasonable prosecutor who rightfully dismissed this case has garnered more respect and praise and that praise has been shared with my community of criminal defense attorneys. For the terrible prosecutor, her reputation for untruthfulness and unreasonableness is stronger not just with me or my fellow criminal defense attorneys, but also among other prosecutors. My reputation? I imagine I am known to both prosecutors as someone who fights hard and fights smart for his clients.